This article is published in the September 2010 issue.

Advancing Women in Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania

Attracting women to study computer science and engineering is an ongoing challenge at colleges and universities across the nation. In the fall of 2007, women in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) at the University of Pennsylvania made up 30 percent  of the undergraduate population. This was better than the national average (largely due to the popularity of Bioengineering as a major), but was nevertheless a figure that we wished to improve. Seeded by a generous alumni donation, the Advancing Women in Engineering (AWE) program was therefore launched to recruit and retain women in engineering. This comprehensive program of outreach targets middle school students all the way through graduate students in an effort to address this national problem on a local level.

Middle School Outreach – PennGEMS

Reaching out to middle school students is primarily accomplished through PennGEMS, a week-long day camp for girls who have just completed grades 6, 7, and 8. Our goal is to influence their conceptions of who can be an engineer or computer scientist and what engineers actually do, as well as to excite them about studying math, science, and technology/engineering. Students participate in a variety of activities in bioengineering, nanotechnology, mechanical engineering, computer science and materials science through catchy themes such as “Glow in the Dark Science,” “How Stuff Works” and “Imagination to Animation.” In our end-of-program survey, one participant wrote, “I now realize that engineering involves so many things I didn’t know it did before.” This was echoed by many others in the program. To date, more than 120 girls have participated in PennGEMS, and the demand exceeds our capacity. Scholarships for this program are provided using corporate and private support.

High School Outreach—WICS High School Day for Girls, Guidance Counselor and Teacher Day to Encourage Women in Computer Science, and Boot Up! Camp

Before AWE was established, undergraduate women in the Computer and Information Science department (CIS) organized Women in Computer Science (WICS) to raise awareness and foster communication in CIS around the issues that women face, as well as to create a sense of community and encourage women to pursue a computer science degree and career. A graduate student group called CISters was similarly created to connect women from different research areas in computer science. Individually, as well as collectively, these groups program a variety of social, professional, and outreach activities. One is the WICS High School Day for Girls, which has been offered since 2007 with an average of 80 students per year. The program brings high school students interested in computer science to campus, where they hear about the excitement, breadth and societal impact of computer science, see demonstrations of exciting research projects in our robotics, graphics and embedded systems laboratories, experience hands-on programming using Scratch in our newly renovated computing classrooms, and learn about the college admissions process.

Observing the interest of teachers who accompanied the girls to campus, in 2009 we expanded our outreach to 30 area high school guidance counselors and teachers by creating a separate day for them to visit campus. In addition to the activities provided for high school girls, we discuss how guidance counselors and teachers can help encourage girls to study computer science, what skills/knowledge will best prepare students for success in computer science, and what a college curriculum in computer science entails. A high note of the day for this group is a lunchtime panel of WICS and CISters students who speak about what it is like to be a (female) college student in computer science and what was helpful to them from their high school preparations. These programs were funded by grants from Microsoft Research and the NSF- funded National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT).

CIS faculty also mentor high school teachers through ACM Computer Science Teacher Association (CSTA) workshops and through a Google CS4HS@Penn workshop.

Undergraduate Programs

AWE’s pre-orientation program for incoming women engineers has been one of our most successful initiatives. Students are invited to move into the dorms early, meet upper-class students and faculty, and get support and advice for being successful in college. As one student said, “Coming [in] . . . as a freshman without the . . . Program, I would have been frightened, friendless, confused, and pretty unaware of the amazing community of women in engineering here at Penn. I’m so thankful for the opportunity AWE Pre-Orientation provided.” The program grew from 19 to 51 students in one year. This year we will host 66 students, nearly 50 percent of the women in the incoming class. To date, only 3 students who attended pre-orientation have transferred out of engineering. Scholarships for the pre-orientation program have been obtained from industry.

Other undergraduate initiatives focus on retention, and include a peer-mentoring program, major- and career-related programs, and support for travel to professional conferences such as the Grace Hopper Women in Computing Conference and the Society of Women Engineers national meeting.

Cascading Mentoring Model

Partnering with Dr. Yasmin Kafai and Quinn Burke from Penn’s Graduate School of Education, as well as Jean Griffin (CIS), Dr. Joe Sun (SEAS) and Michelle Slattery (Peak Research), in spring 2010 we were awarded an NSF grant for Broadening Participation in Computing. In this project, we are implementing a cascading mentoring model through a service learning course (SLC), a summer camp for students in grades 9 and 10 (Boot Up!), and after-school programs and PennGEMS for middle school students. Penn undergraduates who have taken introductory computing can enroll in the SLC and obtain academic credit for learning how to teach computational thinking to high school students who, in turn, help teach middle school students. The tools used in the SLC include Scratch (, Python, and computational textiles.

From our initial offering in June 2010, it is clear that the high school students and undergraduates relate strongly and benefit from each other:  The high school students indicated that the undergraduates were the most significant influence on their learning.  In turn, the undergraduates found that their experience as mentors reinforced their own learning of computer science principles. The feedback from the high school students was also enormously encouraging for our undergraduates. One SLC student recently wrote, “Thanks for sending me the feedback from the camp. I can’t express how fulfilled I feel right now.” While not specifically targeting women, both SLC and Boot Up! have attracted a disproportionate number of women and minorities, and are therefore an important component of AWE.

Graduate Programs

Our focus at the graduate level has been to help create a community for women from across SEAS to come together around common issues. In particular, we have sponsored two successful book discussions on topics related to mentoring and negotiation. The response to this book club has been extremely positive:  More than 20 students participated each time, and found the experience very beneficial to their graduate experience. Having peers who can relate to common challenges and help navigate solutions is extremely important to our women graduate students.

In addition to community building, we encourage our Ph.D. students to become faculty members by giving them opportunities to hear from current SEAS faculty through panel discussions, such as “What it’s like to be a faculty member in engineering.” We have offered this program yearly, and it is highly valued by our students.


Much of the success of AWE has been due to our ability to hire a full-time staff member as director, catalyzing and centralizing a number of outreach efforts across SEAS. We have found that AWE is a big attractor for prospective students and a great source of support once they arrive at the university. When asked about their experience with AWE, one student said, “AWE has provided me with a community and support system within the engineering school in which I feel my voice is heard and my ideas really do matter. I feel privileged to be part of such an outstanding group of women who are continuously “breaking the glass ceiling” that still (unfortunately) exists in the twenty-first century.” Giving students access to information and support has allowed us the opportunity to encourage them to continue on—and to feel fulfilled—in their studies of engineering and computer science.

For more information about AWE and its programs, please visit:

End Note

Susan Davidson is the Weiss Professor and Chair of Computer and Information Science and the Chair of the Advancing Women in Engineering Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Michele Grab is the Director of the Advancing Women in Engineering Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Rita Powell is the Associate Director of the Computer and Information Science Department at the University of Pennsylvania.

Advancing Women in Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania