10 questions with Laura D. Hahn and Angela S. Wolters

Laura D. Hahn and Angela S. Wolters are the editors of ‘Women and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Stories from Illinois.’

Laura D. Hahn and Angela S. Wolters are the editors of Women and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Stories from Illinois.

Welcome! Before we begin, would you introduce yourselves and your new book? 

Laura: Angie and I are colleagues in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. Angie is Director of the Women in Engineering program, and I am the Director of the Academy for Excellence in Engineering Education.

Our collaboration came about when I shared with Angie an old copy I had of Men and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Stories from Illinois (U. of Illinois Press, 1967). It only took us a minute to realize that we had to write the sequel.

‘Women and Ideas in Engineering’ tells the stories of twelve women important to the history of engineering studies in Illinois. The book is edited by Laura D. Hahn and Angela S. Wolters.

What are one or two of the memories that first come to mind when you reflect on the process of brainstorming about and writing the book?

Angie: One of my fondest memories of our brainstorming efforts was the work we did in “crowdsourcing” information from a variety of people: faculty members, administrators, alumni, staff, and more.  Not only did those efforts provide great insight and clarification on identifying women to highlight in the book, but it also served as inspiration to Laura and me as all individuals we talked to were extremely supportive of the project.  With such strong community support, we realized that the book was more than our project and, in fact, belonged to our entire engineering community.

Laura: A particularly wonderful memory for me was the time we spent in our University Library Archives. They had a goldmine of material, and the staff were exceptionally eager to help us. From old newspaper clippings to original faculty papers and appointment letters, we had more than enough data and artifacts to help us build our stories. I also truly appreciated the opportunity to communicate with colleagues, students, and friends of the women we featured; their stories enlivened our narrative and as Angie said, contributed to the community aspect of the project.

A view from the noted big windows in the Grainger Engineering Library at the University of Illinois. Credit: University of Illinois Library.

Were there any nominees you knew little-to-nothing about when you polled your colleagues for recommendations of women to feature in the book?

Laura: I think we were familiar with the women our colleagues suggested because most were from present day.

We knew less about some of the women who represented “firsts” at Illinois. For example, Mary Louisa Page, the first woman to graduate from the College of Engineering (in 1878), and Louise Woodroofe, our first woman faculty member.

Our archivist colleagues have remarked on the paucity of details about the experiences of early students like Mary Louisa; in the case of Louise Woodroofe, we were fortunate enough to talk with many of her friends who are still around—and she was a firecracker!   

You were initially concerned you would be unable to find 12 women to write about, and then were overwhelmed with how many candidates there actually were. Do you think other states would have similar experiences?

Laura: Yes! During and after our book writing process we heard many anecdotes about, e.g., someone’s great aunt who was the first woman to earn an electrical engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin, or someone’s daughter defying gender expectations in a civil engineering firm in California.

Beyond anecdotes are other volumes coming out these days about women in STEM. We were particularly inspired by Amy Bix’s, Girls Coming to Tech. Her chronicles of women in engineering studies demonstrate that there are numerous stories to be told.

On that note, have you given any consideration to creating a 50-state series based on this idea?

Laura: That does not seem to be in the cards. We are both loyal University of Illinois employees and alums, so this project was personal for us because we are a part of the roots here. Plus, we can’t imagine finding more time (times 49) for that!

I would love to see other states and institutions follow suit, though; we would definitely cheer them on.

How does the participation of women in STEM at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign compare to 30 years ago? How do you hope it might look 30 years from now?

Angie: When evaluating the participation of women in engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, we see that today women are represented as 22 percent of the College of Engineering population of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree students. 

While this percentage of seems low, we compare that number to 14 percent of the college 30 years ago in 1988. 

Also as we compare these points in time, we consider that during this time our College of Engineering enrollment saw a drastic increase from total 7,334 students to 11,463.  Therefore, the number of women participating in majors in our College of Engineering has more than doubled with the number of women increasing from 1,024 women in 1988 to 2,565 women in fall 2018. 

We saw law and medicine move from low representations (~20 to 25%) women in the 1970s to gender parity within four decades.  So my sincere hope for the next 30 years is that we can do the same in overcoming the gender disparity in engineering. 

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What can the average parent do to break down barriers of exclusion for women in STEM fields when their daughters are in elementary school?

Angie: Parents hold the key to encouraging their students to explore STEM, with opportunities varying from finding STEM-related day events to attend, to joining the STEM-type clubs at school. Beyond introducing their student to STEM through these or other programs, parents should share STEM stories by finding books and videos that show the diversity of people involved in STEM and the amazing ways STEM careers serve the world by solving problems. 

In the past, many STEM fields have failed in showing how their work makes a difference in the world.  With studies showing that girls and women often desire to have their work impact society, we need to highlight these impacts to society when we teach not only our daughters, but all children about STEM careers. 

Angela Hahn explained, “Parents hold the key to encouraging their students to explore STEM.”

Additionally, parents should support their students in the exploration of math and science courses while helping them build their problem solving skills through individual and group project work.  Parents need to facilitate an environment that allows their students to create and explore. 

Do men have an outsized influence on encouraging or discouraging female STEM scholars?

Angie: Given that men represent over 80% of all engineering faculty, they have the ability to significantly influence the path of women to engineering scholarship.

Many of the stories we shared of successful women faculty within Women and Ideas in Engineering highlighted the influence of supportive mentors and colleagues who were men.  Judith Liebman— whose story we share in Chapter 2 on Faculty Pioneers—had the support of many colleagues who were men including Gary Hogg. 

Most of these men, like Gary, provided encouragement and support by walking alongside Judith recognizing her as an equal.  We need all people to be more like Gary and see past labels of underrepresentation to support the individual. 

How did you come up with the idea to focus a chapter on mentors? Would you provide an example from the book of someone who had a significant influence because she mentored female students?

Laura: Our original intent was to have twelve chapters, each featuring a different woman from Illinois Engineering. When we decided to include more than twelve women, the idea of chapter themes emerged.

An early faculty member, Grace Wilson, taught at Illinois from 1946 to 1973, and made tremendous impact as a mentor to the women students in those years. We wanted to emphasize the value of mentoring for women in STEM, and Grace’s story provided the perfect foundation for that theme.

Are there any overarching themes of inspiration and discouragement you discovered in the lives of the women you feature?

Laura: Many of the women in our book grew up with strong support from family members. As Angie said, “Parents hold the key.”

Another inspirational theme is passion: The dedication and deep enthusiasm these women have had for their work—whether in carbon emissions, robotics, or cancer research—is remarkable.

We heard fewer stories of discouragement, although Rosalyn Yalow’s comment in her 1977 Nobel Prize speech reflects both a challenge and a path forward: “We cannot expect in the immediate future that all women who seek it will achieve full equality of opportunity. But if women are to start moving towards that goal, we must believe in ourselves or no one else will believe in us; we must match our aspirations with the competence, courage and determination to succeed. The world cannot afford the loss of the talents of half its people if we are to solve the many problems which beset us.” 

Dr. Rosalyn Sussman Yalow at her Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital, October 13, 1977, after learning she was one of three American doctors awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine that year. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States Federal Government under the terms of 17 U.S.C. § 105.

Would you each share a snippet from the book that strongly affected you on a personal level?

Angie: While many pieces of the book resonated with me personally, the one quote that has had the strongest effect was one noted by my teenage daughter.  As a future woman in STEM, she shared the following social media post which included a quote from the book:

“A few lines from the book state, ‘Over the years, many individual women engineers took the time to mentor and advise other women interested in the field of engineering. While they may go unnamed here, we recognize their efforts in the greater numbers of practicing women engineers today.’ My mother is one of those women. There are so many women that she has helped and encouraged. I am blessed to be one of those women.”

Knowing that my work on this book and beyond coupled with the words shared in the text impacted others including my daughter displays the true beauty of the efforts of Women in Engineering (WIE) at Illinois.

Laura: One of my favorite snippets is from Cinda Heeren’s reflections on computing: “The computing of today has its roots in traditions of handcraft, art, and music, and the minute we all admit that fact, we have the ability to break down barriers. With this in mind, I will infuse my teaching with these connections and broaden the historical view of our field, primarily because I do not want artificial barriers to participation. Besides, arts and crafts are beautiful and expressive and human.”

I love how Cinda implicitly tackles assumptions about computing and emphasizes the value of history, art, and inclusion. We can all benefit from seeing our work in a broader view. In addition, Cinda’s aspirations for her teaching reflect the depth of knowledge, passion, and creative thought that are the hallmarks of excellent teachers. She has been an inspiration to me and to many others.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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