In 1897, Virginia Ohanlon, an eight-year-old girl at the time, wrote a letter to the editor of New York’s Sun newspaper, asking the paper to indicate whether there really was a Santa Claus. She stated that her father had told her that if you see something in the Sun then it had to be true; therefore, she wanted to know if Santa was real.
Newsman Francis Pharcellus Church responded by saying, “Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.” The story of Virginia’s question to the Sun has since been written as a story, has been made into an animated film and a movie (“Yes Virginia, Newseum“).
The answer to Virginia’s question depended upon the understanding that love and generosity have given birth to a fictional character, who represents the people who love us in our own lives. The answer concerning whether a polytechnic education should be taken advantage of by female students interested in fields of studies such as science, technology, and engineering can be answered “yes” more emphatically because there is physical evidence that women have long been part of this educational world.
Stuart Rojstaczer, the author of the website GradeInflation.com, placed Southern Polytechnic State University as one of the schools that made his Sweet 16 of Tough Graders list in 2010 because it’s a “hard-nosed science and engineering school” that beats out its “state rival Georgia Tech” for his list (Rojstaczer). The tendency in the United States is to think that the students, faculty, and staff of such “hard-nosed” engineering and science schools are or should be male. While SPSU is predominantly male at this time (only 22% of the university’s students are female), it’s ready to change that image and to acknowledge that females can be and should be “hard-nosed” and interested in polytechnic universities. SPSU is also ready to help people interested in an education at a polytechnic to realize that engineering and the sciences aren’t the only things taught at polytechnic universities. The university wants to become the first choice for women (students, faculty, and staff) in the STEAM fields in the State of Georgia.
What does the acronym STEAM stand for? It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. Yes, I know that the word “arts” is not normally linked with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), but I once listened to a colleague of mine at SPSU, Dr. Betty Oliver, deliver a paper on creative thinking as part of a polytechnic education. She pointed out to her audience that “polytechnic” is derived from the Greek word “polytechnos” which is pulled from “poly” (meaning “many”) + “technē” (meaning “art”). Thus, “many arts.”
In other words, those of us using the acronym “STEAM” have simply placed the “arts” back in as a descriptor of a polytechnic education. Admittedly the “arts” in this case are linked to applied, technical, and industrial arts, but who is to say that the STEAM engine is any less a piece of art than the Mona Lisa of Leonardo da Vinci? Da Vinci did not see the divide between the sciences and the arts that so many of us see today. His notebooks contain observations and drawings concerned with flying machines, war machinery, and anatomy. Thus, those of us who teach at SPSU, not only see the arts as part of our Architecture, English and Professional Communication, New Media Arts, and Fashion Design Programs, but we also see the “art” involved in designing computer programs, engines, electrical circuits, and so on.
The Women’s Social
On November 19, 2013, over sixty female students, staff, and faculty members at SPSU met together in the university’s ballroom in order to brainstorm on what it would mean for SPSU to move full steam ahead on becoming the first-choice for female students, faculty, and staff interested in a polytechnic education. The women gathered at round tables to discuss issues that will make the culture of the university more appealing to both women and men in order to grow the number of women involved in its STEAM fields.
The social was sponsored by the following men and women on campus: Mr. Gary Bush, Dr. Laura Beth Daws, Ms. Kelsey Harr-Lagin, Quint Hill, Chelsea Feraco, Ms. Vickie Moody, Dr. Simin Nasseri, Dr. Kisa Ranasinghe, Dr. Becky Rutherfoord, Rebecca Tuck, Cathy Smith, Misty York, and I.
Dr. Lisa A. Rossbacher, the President of the University led the charge for the social; Ms. Stephanie Coleman, the Director of Web Services at
SPSU and a finalist for WIT’s Woman of the Year in Technology award, also spoke; I then took a few minutes to set the framework for the meeting. We focused on RES as Recruitment, Education, and Support and as Remodeling, Engaging and Sponsoring. In other words, we plan to support and grow the female population at SPSU by actively doing the following:
- Recruiting women as faculty, staff, and students;
- Educating the public on the achievements of women in polytechnic fields as well as educating young girls well in math and science so they get the education necessary to succeed in STEAM fields;
- Supporting all campus members through a family friendly campus, advising, and mentoring;
- Remodeling education so that we can change the misperceptions concerning women, science and technology;
- Engaging in acts of mentoring in similar ways to what is being done through the organization Women in Technology (WIT);
- Sponsoring women faculty, staff, and students so they can become leaders.
Once the stage was set for what we wanted to achieve, we got busy brainstorming on how to achieve these things. Ms. Kelsey Harr-Lagin, a communications studies instructor at SPSU, instructed the women to work at their tables to discuss the following issues:
- How to create a family friendly campus that helps faculty, students, and staff to balance their lives;
- Identifying reasons for why SPSU’s current culture may not attract female students;
- Ideas and activities for Women’s History Month in 2014;
Outcomes of Brainstorming
We ended the social by sharing what we came up with through the brainstorming. What follows are top ideas in each category that we will consider as we begin to take some action steps for making SPSU the polytechnic university of choice for women. To frame our list another way, please consider it as Virginia’s wish list for Christmas J
A Family Friendly Campus
- Day care facilities for faculty, staff, and students.
- Better transportation to campus as well as a trolley that regularly goes back and forth from the bus station to campus. When SPSU merges with Kennesaw State University disability friendly shuttles between campuses.
- A convenience store with groceries, feminine products, over the counter drugs, and a pharmacy.
- Family events for weekends, such as a family fest/parent weekend
- More lighting on campus everywhere, but especially around apartments and living areas. Escorts to cars after dark as well as more security officers patrolling the campus on bikes or Segways.
- Housing options/apartments for single parents/ family friendly living
What Gets in the Way of female students and a polytechnic education at SPSU. Agree or Disagree Statements
1. Not enough female students on campus currently.
Answers: Somewhat Agree since women like to hang out with other women; however, the campus is growing and it seems that women specific things are the only things that really bring women together—in other words, the female respondents didn’t think women necessarily had to have other women for a successful education.
2. Most of the guys are on the geeky, video-game side or are nerds; the culture here is largely not attractive to the stereotypical female.
Answers: Agree but not all women are the stereotypical females being thought of here. We (SPSU women) are about our education. We come to SPSU for similar reasons as the guys do and it gives us things in common once we get to know each other.
3. The majors at SPSU do not appeal to women.
Answers: Disagree since more and more women are getting interested in engineering and the sciences. Plus, there are very interesting degrees that appeal to everyone at SPSU.
4. Not enough activities are put together that appeal to females.
Answers: Agree we only have one event currently that is set up for females. We need to make allies of males so that we can build more activities of a broad appeal.
5. U.S. culture might prevent some women from considering science or technology occupations.
Answers: Agree and Disagree Our society doesn’t value intelligence enough in general. Sometimes it gets promoted as something to be ashamed of. Plus, we make excuses for women who don’t achieve. Maybe we should offer gender sensitivity training. It’s not the US culture that’s a problem. A lot of women are in the sciences. Plus, it seems to be more of a problem for faculty who come from countries where gender equality is not part of the culture.
Activities and Ideas for Women’s History Month in March
In 2014 the theme for Women’s History Month is Women of Character, Courage and Commitment. Here are some of the ideas women will explore:
- Students/Staff/Faculty—social to talk about their women role models (Mothers, grandmothers and so on) or recognize SPSU women of character, courage, and commitment.
- Hand out simple pamphlets about event of the week/ on Hornet TV; put it in The Sting event calendar. Create a D2L dropbox or discussion group or a subreddit.
- Have general speakers and/or student presentations
- Do a girls scout event—talk to girls when they’re young.
- Visit under-represented communities—serves double goals of women and diversity
- Create a student-led sorority/SWE nerd-off or scavenger hunt concerning women of character, courage, and commitment.
While we didn’t get as much time to talk about recruitment as the other items, we did note that the Recruitment Office at SPSU plans to hold another SOPOWO day on February, 10, 2014, in order to recruit new students. Female students noted, “We need to make it cool to be smart. We should market to ‘fab female nerds.’” Ms. Vickie Moody, the advisor for the Society of Women Engineers, noted that the group has already hosted an event for YWCA’s Teen Girls in Technology and that the group visits local schools as well.
The female students at SPSU created a fitting ending to the social by agreeing to paint the SPSU ROCK pink. While the ROCK has already been repainted by another group of students, the females photographed it for prosperity. The commitment to making SPSU the choice for women in STEAM fields at a polytechnic university has not been lost. Plans are underway already for the SOPOWO women’s day and the women’s history month initiative. In January meetings are planned concerning women and the culture of SPSU. So, yes, Virginia, you too should consider a polytechnic education and, yes, Virginia, women in polytechnic fields are already making a difference in the world.