Dr. Beth Holloway has been the Director of the Women in Engineering Program at Purdue University since 2001 and serves as Assistant Dean for Diversity and Engagement as well as Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Prior to joining Purdue, Dr. Holloway was a research and development engineering group leader at Cummins, Inc., where she was a recognized corporate engine lubrication system expert with specialties in piston cooling nozzle and lubrication pump performance. She received both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education, all from Purdue.

Dr. Beth Holloway

What got you from the point when you were in middle school or high school to becoming an engineer? Was there someone who mentored you along the way?

Dr. Beth Holloway: As a kid, my brother and I would always be helping my dad, who was an electrician. My dad would be changing the oil in the car and start cussing out engineers saying things like, “Why did they put this oil filter in a place where no one can reach it?” A lot of our discussions about engineers were born out of his frustration. When I was about 12, I asked him, “I’ve heard you talk a lot about engineers. What does an engineer do?” It was his answer that made me really seriously consider engineering. He said that he didn’t really know exactly what an engineer did, but if you want to be part of the decision-making process of what gets made, how it gets made, and who it gets made for, you need to be an engineer.

For me, that was incredibly inspiring because it was a way for me to think about a future profession where I could be part of shaping the future. As a kid, I was thinking that if I have ideas, being an engineer is a way that I can bring my ideas forward.

Not understanding what engineering is seems to be a problem not just for young girls but also for young boys. It seems that there is a need to define this.

Dr. Holloway: I agree. As an aside, my brother ended up as an engineer as well but one of the things I tell people when they ask about my background is that I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be an engineer. I had no idea that it was a thing that guys did. When I got to college, I thought it was a thing anybody did. Also, you don’t have to be the valedictorian or the math whiz to follow that path and you don’t have to love it, either. I don’t really care for math all that much. You do the math so that you can do whatever it is that you want to do in the end. So for me, math is a tool — it’s not what gets me excited about learning.

When I talk to students and parents, I tell them that they may hear that to be an engineer you need to love math and be really good at it. My message to them is that you need to be competent and you need to be able to do enough math to get you through your undergraduate degree. But most engineers don’t solve differential equations all day. If you really, really love biology, maybe you should not be an engineer — maybe you should be a biologist.

Purdue’s Women in Engineering program was founded in 1969 and is the oldest in the nation, correct?

Dr. Holloway: Yes — it coincided with a lot of cool things that happened in 1969 like the Moon landing. Just the concept of women in engineering in 1969 was way ahead of its time. The engineering student body at Purdue in 1969 was less than one percent women. Today, women get 20% of the undergraduate engineering degrees that are granted at Purdue, which is amazing.

You have a number of programs aimed at providing a fun and educational experience for children and young adults that increase the awareness and knowledge of engineering aimed specifically at future women engineers.

Dr. Holloway: We work with kindergarten through tenth grade to spark and nurture an interest in STEM and engineering specifically. There is research that talks about how young people choose careers and what kinds of factors are important when they’re choosing careers. There are five factors. They want to enjoy what they do, they want to have a good working environment, they want to have some flexibility, they want to make an income to support themselves, and they want to make a difference. When our students talk about how they came into engineering, they frame their message through at least one of those five factors.

When we host girls here, we always have hands-on projects that the students are doing while being mentored by our current engineering students. And that’s really important. We are very clear that those are engineering projects, not science experiments. I do think that sometimes when there is STEM outreach, we kind of default to science. But if we really want to highlight engineering, an experiment extracting DNA from a banana or a strawberry is an awesome science experiment but that’s not an engineering project.

How much do you involve parents in your programs?

Dr. Holloway: Our Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day is geared toward ninth and tenth graders. And then we have a very similar program called Engineering FYI that is geared to students who are going to be starting seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. And in each of those events, there is a session in which I talk to the parents about how to encourage their child’s interest in engineering. Research has been done about a parent’s influence on their children’s choices and the kinds of differences in terms of how parents may relate to their sons versus their daughters.

I try to illustrate to parents that all of their children need encouragement to do whatever it is they were meant to do, whether that’s engineering or something else. They should also think about the ways in which they do that and to make sure that they’re encouraging their daughters in ways that are maybe not so different from how they encourage their sons. Let me give an example. Many parents attribute their son’s success in math to just being really good at math or they’ll say that he’s got that “math gene.” And then parents will say that their daughter, who is equally good at math, “works really hard.” It’s just a bit of a different message.

So what should parents be doing to encourage their kids?

Dr. Holloway: I’ve talked to a lot of parents and a lot of engineers who are parents who’ve said, “I tried to get my kid to be an engineer but it didn’t work.” And that’s fine. Not every young person should become an engineer. But I do think there are things that parents can do and shouldn’t do that might encourage their kids along the path of engineering. I have twins — a boy and a girl — and they are both studying engineering in college. My strategy, which was rather deliberate, was anytime they said they were interested in something, I talked to them about how engineering fit that. It didn’t matter what it was because engineers are involved in everything you see. I’m sure they got sick of it but what they heard is engineers do a lot of different things. And then when they were in seventh grade, I just stopped altogether because at this point, you become pushy. I think what happened is that engineering as a profession sort of became the thing they measured everything else against — could I also do that as an engineer?

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This article first appeared in the March, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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