THE BLOG
11/07/2014 01:58 pm ET Updated Jan 07, 2015

For America's Future, Engineering Needs to Diversify

We have heard much back and forth in recent years about whether America turns out enough scientists and engineers to remain competitive in the global economy, but there is no debate on the demographic makeup of those scientists and engineers we are producing.

According to data maintained by the board governing the National Science Foundation, women and minorities continue to be underrepresented in engineering, a serious situation that demands our attention.

Women are half the nation's population, but the share of women in engineering dropped from 21 percent in 2000 to 18 percent in 2010.

African-Americans and Hispanics are also underrepresented, based on their overall numbers in the U.S. Census. Blacks make up 14 percent of the population, but just nine percent are earning bachelor's degrees in science and engineering. Hispanics are 20 percent of the college-age population, and they, too, get nine percent of B.S. degrees in science and engineering.

Since engineering graduates go from college to careers, the same gaps are found in the workplace. If the United States is going to continue as the most innovative and productive workforce in the world, and if we are going to have the intellectual capital needed to address our biggest economic, environmental, health and security challenges, we need more people involved in the effort.

At UC Davis, we take this responsibility very seriously. An organization called the College Database ranks the top 50 colleges advancing women in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and UC Davis is number one in the nation, with more than 2,500 women in 169 STEM programs.

Our College of Engineering is indicative of our efforts to become more diverse. The percentage of degrees for women in the College are higher than the national averages. In 2012-13, women received 28 percent of the bachelor's degrees, up from 22 percent in 2009, my first year as UC Davis' chancellor. For the same time period, women's share of master and doctoral degrees, which is where our future professors come from, was 31 percent and 21 percent.

We have also emphasized diversity in our faculty. There is still a long way to go, but in our College of Engineering, which U.S. News & World Report ranks as the 17th best in the nation among public universities, 19.2 percent of our faculty are women. Only two of the top 50 engineering colleges have higher percentages of female faculty. At the associate and assistant professor level, 27 percent are women, so our trend lines are headed in the right direction.

Hispanic's share of undergraduate degrees in the UC Davis College of Engineering also exceeds national averages. In 2012-13, Hispanics received 16 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering, an increase from 13.6 percent in 2009. Unfortunately, African-American shares of undergraduate degrees in engineering at UC Davis lag behind already low national averages, at just 1.5 percent, and we know this gap needs to be addressed.

Even the smallest advances rarely occur by accident. Across UC Davis, we conduct aggressive outreach to connect with underrepresented groups as we strive to have a student and faculty makeup that reflects the diversity of California and the nation.

The Need For Role Models

I know from my own experience how crucial it is to see role models in the classroom and laboratories when you are a student, especially if you are a female entering one of the sciences. When I was an undergraduate studying electrical engineering at the National Technical University in Athens, I was one of two women in a class of 189. Not seeing anyone who looked or sounded like me, I felt isolated throughout my undergraduate years and seriously considered dropping out.

We know that girls at a young age tend to get discouraged from pursuing science and engineering because bias about their science aptitude still exists. With the bright science students we see at UC Davis, we know that bias is unfounded, and we have programs designed to help get young girls excited about science.

One such popular program, the Girls' Leadership Camp on Computing and Robotics, teaches 7th and 8th graders the basic principles of robotics, engineering and computer programming. Getting girls interested in science and engineering at a young age is one of our best bets for bringing more of them into STEM programs at UC Davis and other universities.

We also just completed the second year of a three-year National Science Foundation grant program known as ADVANCE that is allowing us to hire additional Latina science and technology faculty. We are also strengthening our mentorship efforts and building programs that reduce institutional barriers and unconscious bias in faculty hiring and retention. UC Davis has earned a reputation as a good place for diverse faculty to aspire to work and we want to enhance that even more.

I have no doubt girls and other traditionally underrepresented groups can excel in STEM classes and careers like anyone else. We see the proof every day on our campus. It's up to us to work together to make sure they have the encouragement and opportunities for a 21st Century economy built on innovation and discovery.