New Living Learning Community to Help Female Students Gain STEAM

Mary Jane Partain
Mary Jane Partain

When Dr. Janell Straach took computer science courses at UT Dallas a few decades ago, there were very few female students in her classes.

“I just accepted it as that’s the way it is. We all knew each other. You found each other and clung together,” she recalled.

As the department grew and women were still underrepresented in classes, “there was no mechanism for them to connect,” said Straach, who is now a senior lecturer in computer science in the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science.

“What I hear from female students most often is that they feel they’re the only one. When they don’t see other women in their class section, they sometimes think, ‘Maybe I’m not making the right choice,’ or ‘I’m not smart enough to compete with the guys.’ That’s just not true,” Straach said.

To help female students in the STEAM fields be better connected, UT Dallas will pilot a new Living Learning Community (LLC) in fall 2017 to support women in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

The new Women in STEAM LLC will accommodate 28 students entering their sophomore through senior years in engineering, computer science, arts and technology, and emerging media and communication.

Students in the new LLC will live near one another in a cluster of new apartments on the southwest side of campus. A peer advisor will be an overall resource and help develop a sense of community for the students. As faculty advisor, Straach will teach a weekly Topics in STEAM course for the students.

Organizers hope the new LLC will increase the retention of female students in these fields through support from peers, faculty interactions and programming.

“One of the things that helps with the retention for women in STEAM fields is having a sense of support,” said Mary Jane Partain, director of Living Learning Communities. “If they don’t feel they belong, they’re more likely to opt out.”

At UT Dallas, student-led groups such as Women Who Compute help nurture a sense of belonging. Organizers hope the LLC will offer the next step by giving students the opportunity to study, take classes together and hang out with like-minded peers.

Women in STEAM LLC

Women in STEAM

Here are some of the requirements that students must meet for the program: (The full list is here)

  • Be entering their sophomore through senior year.
  • Major in engineering, computer science, arts and technology, or emerging media and communication.
  • Be enrolled in a minimum of 12 credit hours.
  • Have a minimum cumulative GPA of 2.75.

Surveys show that students who participate in living learning programs experience smoother social and academic transitions to college and express higher self-confidence in their abilities to succeed in college, Partain said. They also have a greater sense of belonging on campus and more professional self-confidence.

Women in STEAM fields especially need support because they are still in the minority in these academic majors and careers. According to the National Science Foundation, women accounted for only 18 percent of the computer science bachelor’s degrees and 19 percent of the engineering bachelor’s degrees earned in 2012.

Women in male-dominated STEAM fields also can experience gender bias and either subtle or overt sexual harassment, said Lauren DeCillis, director of the Galerstein Women’s Center, one of the UT Dallas partners for the new LLC.

The Galerstein Women’s Center will work alongside the LLC to develop programs that contribute to a supportive, culturally diverse environment, DeCillis said.

“We can broaden their circle of community, connect them with industry partners, networking and mentoring relationships, as well as other peers across disciplines,” DeCillis said.

The Women in STEAM LLC will provide a network of support for current students and help create a pipeline of future UT Dallas students through pre-college outreach to area students.

LLC participants will work with UT Dallas camps and programs for high school students, including the Techy Girls Residential Camp, which helps North Texas high school junior and senior girls become interested in computer science careers.

“Research shows that when encouraging female students to enter these STEAM fields, the younger the better,” Partain said.

“We want to create an environment of support where women can lean on one another, grow together and transition into their fields. We want to support them in the classroom and after hours, to create a cycle of success.”

Applications for the new LLC will be accepted through Friday, March 24.