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Closing the engineering gender gap at Oakland Tech


These days, we often hear that the gender gap is closing. Girls in high school are  excelling in reading and writing, and they’re making gains in math and science. Moreover, women are applying to colleges in greater numbers than men – and earning more degrees.

However, the gender gap still remains large in certain industries, particularly engineering. Take the KALW newsroom, for example: the hosts are women, the staff is primarily female, yet both of our show engineers are men. It’s a small sample size, but outside the newsroom, only 11 percent of practicing engineers are women – that’s a number that has grown only five percentage points since 1983.

However, the tide may be turning. Women now make up 35 percent of engineering undergraduates at M.I.T – and that number is growing, in part, thanks to Oakland Technical High School. Its Engineering Academy sent four young women to MIT in 2007. 

In Mr. Merrill’s 11th grade geometrics class, about 40 teenagers have their heads in their hands and some are even crying. The students have all just come from a crucial calculus exam and are about to take a quiz. But Mr. Merrill feels the intense energy emitting from the group and instead postpones the quiz until tomorrow. 

“Go outside where the truck is, blow off some steam, don’t hurt yourselves,” says Parker Merrill. 

Mr. Merrill has been teaching in Oakland sine 1971. Mr. Merrill and his colleague Carl Hertstein founded the Engineering Academy at Oakland Technical High School in 1986.

“We discovered that students were going off to engineering schools and were just failing the physics part of it miserably,” says Merrill. So they re-examined how schools were teaching. “And we found that all the schools in Oakland were doing survey physics where you learn a little bit about a lot of different things in the world of physics. So we looked at the college curriculum and concentrated on just physics mechanic and heavy application of math in those physics classes.”

And that formula did the trick. For over 20 years now, Oakland Tech’s Engineering Academy has been sending more and more students to prestigious colleges and universities across the country. In 2009 the president of MIT came to visit after discovering a high concentration of students coming from the Engineering Academy to MIT.  “The level of learning here is far beyond anything in most high schools,” Merrill remarks.   

Throughout the country, the scientific community has been working hard to increase the number of women pursuing degrees and careers in engineering. Girls like Kelsey Higbie are picking up on this trend.

“I really like engineering because it’s more math. And it’s just spatial thinking so it’s really interesting to like, figure out how objects are viewed in space. And I really liked last year because there was a lot of free-hand drawing and it taught me how to draw boxes and shapes, and figure out how to take away space from cubes and rectangles prisms and stuff,” says Higbie.

Higbie is not sure if engineering is the profession for her, but she says she’s really enjoyed her experience in the Engineering Academy.

Then there are girls like senior Eva Yeung, who has her heart set on becoming an engineer. Today in drafting class she’s navigating back and forth from an illustration of an engine spindle to the computer, where she is trying to recreate a 3-D image of it. Eva thinks she is ready to take on the world. She can see the value in engineering beyond building bridges. 

“I mean engineers, like, do so much. I mean biomedical engineers may continue to keep you alive. And civil and mechanical engineers, like, they make things to make your life easier. I mean, like, I figured that there is so much stuff you can do as an engineer that would help people so that’s kind of the route I want to go on,” says Yeung.

It’s that kind of passion this program inspires. After 20 years, the Engineering Academy at Oakland Technical High School continues to send students to college, prepared to excel in their math and science courses. 

Merrill says, “I have students all the time saying they’re taking their first physics course in college and they’re acing it – and they just really have no problem with it.”

About half of the students in the program continue to pursue degrees in engineering after they graduate. And roughly half of these students are young women according to Merrill.

He says this program is in high demand – only 65 percent of students who apply are accepted. It’s easy to see why – the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics claims engineering-related jobs will be one of the fastest growing occupations through 2014. 

This story originally aired on February 9, 2011.