Women lead the way for Campbell’s School of Engineering

Sixty percent of Campbell’s engineering faculty is made up of women; School continues to carry torch for more women, more diversity in STEM education

From the day she came to Campbell University as the founding dean of its School of Engineering — a full year before its official launch in 2016 — Dr. Jenna Carpenter pledged that her school would support diversity in engineering education. 

“The issue of diversity is one of significant importance to us as a nation,” Carpenter said in 2015, “if we hope to remain competitive economically, to generate the innovation and creativity needed to solve the engineering challenges of the 21st century, and to meet workforce demands.”

In 2019, Campbell Engineering was recognized as one of the most inclusive engineering schools in the nation by the American Society for Engineering Education. Today, eight years since its first class, 60 percent of the School’s faculty is made up of women. 

That figure is three times the national average, and Campbell leads the nation with women making up 100 percent of the engineering school’s staff.

“Research has repeatedly shown that we create better solutions to problems, especially complex ones, when we have a diverse team of people working on it. They will outperform a team of experts,” Carpenter said. “We also need people designing solutions to problems who represent the spectrum of people who will be using those solutions.” 

Carpenter points to engineering that went behind car airbags and the serious design flaws in early models that didn’t consider women and children with smaller frames than “the average passenger.”

“Had there been women engineers on those teams designing the first air bags, they would have realized that women and children don’t weigh 150 lbs on average and consequently that they would be killed by such a design,” Carpenter said. “So a lack of diversity in engineering poses huge risks.”

Eight women make up the faculty and staff at Campbell’s School of Engineering — in addition to Carpenter, the teaching faculty and staff is made up of associate professors Dr. Alison Polasik and Dr. Jacqueline Gartner; assistant professors Dr. Allison Lee and Dr. Ana Rynearson; and Associate Dean Dr. Michele Miller. The staff includes Dr. Teresa Ratcliff, director of interprofessional education and outreach, and administrative assistant Kate Dorsch. The School’s External Advisory Board also includes women who are high-ranking associates for Pfizer and Grifols Therapeutics LLC.

“We have a serious shortage of engineers in the U.S. … and we face huge risks to manufacturing, innovation, economic security and national security for our nation,” Carpenter said. “We have to attract, educate and graduate large numbers of women and other historically underrepresented students to have any hope of meeting engineering workforce needs in the U.S. The talent is there. We have just historically discouraged, failed to support and deterred these groups from pursuing engineering. 

“It is imperative for us all to work to make women in engineering commonplace,” added Ratcliff, the first woman to be named president of the National Society of Professional Engineers. “We need the talent and ingenuity from across the board and women bring a needed unique perspective.”

Overcoming Bias

Alison Polasik was a junior in high school when she first became interested in engineering. Up to that point, she thought the field was all about “robots and roads.” 

“If you would have asked me in middle school, I would have thought you meant someone who runs a train,” she said. 

But she leaned into her STEM courses in high school and liked the fact that they were both challenging and important in the grand scheme of things. 

“I just felt like it was a field where I could make an impact.” 

For Michele Miller, the passion for engineering started much earlier — the daughter of an engineer, she preferred Legos and Erector Sets in elementary school. As long as she can remember, she had plans on one day becoming a scientist.

Their road to professional engineer was not without its bumps. Polasik points to several times where she faced implicit biases along the way because she is a woman. 

“I was invited to join a technical committee so that I could do the catering,” she recalled. “I was specifically encouraged to think of jobs that would allow me to balance a family, even though my husband was a graduate student in the same department at the same time and did not get the same advice.”

She called each bump “small,” but over time, they added up. 

“In truth, it did keep me from pursuing my career … for a time,” she said. “I came back after a several-year hiatus to finish my Ph.D. I’m proud that I made it work out in the end, but it wasn’t the easiest path.”

Carpenter has been a national voice against implicit biases for women and minorities in engineering long before she came to Campbell University. Her love for all things STEM began before elementary school, and her mother encouraged her to follow her dreams when it came time to pick a major entering college.

She, too, faced hurdles as a woman in engineering throughout her secondary education and in her career. To this day, as founding dean of a growing engineering program at Campbell, she faces them. 

“When people to this day call the dean’s office on the phone or walk into the dean’s office suite or email the dean’s office wanting to talk to the dean, Dr. Carpenter [me], I am frequently assumed to be the secretary, despite the fact that I clearly state when answering the phone that I am Dr. Carpenter and the fact that it’s in my email signature,” she said. “On the rare occasion that I have on a T-shirt for an event on campus, people will ask me if I am a student. I am 62, so I don’t think I look much like a student.”

She said she’s been aware of the stereotypes about women in engineering — such as the belief that women are worse at math — but she kept excelling in those courses growing up. Now as an advocate for women in engineering and STEM, she understands that those biases had nothing to do with her growing up, and that often those biases were unintentional and opposite of people’s intended values. 

“That helps ameliorate my reactions,” she said. “But it is still discouraging and frustrating to be viewed as less capable or unqualified when in fact the exact opposite is actually true.”

The fact that Campbell is led by so many experienced, talented women shouldn’t be unique, she said. But she and her staff are proud of what they’ve built over the past eight years and proud of the group that leads them today. 

Said Carpenter: “At Campbell, we work very hard to recruit, educate and graduate a wide range of students, and consequently we have a much more diverse student body than you will find at most universities in engineering.”

“Dealing with diverse voices is challenging. It creates cognitive dissonance,” added Miller. “[But] that discomfort leads to growth, learning and creativity.”