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Professor Sheryl Staub-French Demystifies Engineering for University of British Columbia Students 

June 10, 2015

Dr. Sheryl Staub-French

The latest profile in our popular Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) series puts the spotlight on Dublin High School Class of ’88 alum Dr. Sheryl Staub-French who went on to earn an civil engineering degree from Santa Clara University and PhD in civil engineering at Stanford University, ultimately security a position at the University of British Columbia. In sharing her story, Sheryl points to misperceptions about what an engineer is and does as a key barrier to more women entering the field. Sheryl was named UBC’s Goldcorp Professor for Women in Engineering, tasked with leading “a targeted recruitment strategy for UBC Engineering that plans to increase the number of women enrolled in its programs from the national average of 20 per cent to close to 50 per cent by 2019.”

Other profiles in’s Women in STEM series include Disney Imagineer Molly Rinke, Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant, NASA scientist Amy Mainzer, Harvey Mudd College president Maria Klawe, Google vice president Johanna Wright and many more. How do you describe engineering?

Dr. Sheryl Staub-French: “There are a lot of misperceptions about engineering. Engineering is a creative, collaborative, rewarding profession that helps people in communities. Engineering is focused on making people’s lives better through the application of math and science.” There are many different disciplines of engineering. Do high school students need to have a discipline in mind before entering college?

Dr. Staub-French: “While it varies, you generally have the first year to figure it out. At the University of British Columbia, for example, we have a common first year and at the end of that year you select your discipline. We do a lot of case studies across the different disciplines in the first year so that students can make an informed choice. Students can switch, although it doesn’t happen very often and does end up taking longer.” At what point did you first become interested in engineering?

Dr. Staub-French: “I didn’t actually have an interest in engineering until I was in an engineering program! I was good at math and science in high school, and it was clear that I should pursue something that would leverage those skills. My dad recommended that I pursue engineering and I didn’t really know what engineering was. My brother was in a mechanical engineering program and while I still didn’t really understand engineering, the ability to apply math appealed to me.

“When I started my first year of engineering I had no idea what discipline I was going to pursue, and it was civil engineering that really clicked for me. There was something about the ability to visualize the forces that affect a structure, and the environmental focus, that appealed to me.” What led to pursuing a PhD in engineering rather than going into industry?

Dr. Staub-French with UBC students

Dr. Staub-French: “I played basketball during university so it was a pretty intense period of time. When I finished my undergraduate degree I was done – I was never going back to school again. I did go out and work for a construction company thinking it would help me become a structural engineer, but ended up falling in love with the construction process and being out in the field. After working for a bit over a year I couldn’t envision a career in industry being as rewarding as what I was looking for.

“I did some soul-searching about how to use my engineering degree. I had several great professors during my undergraduate experience and they were instrumental in my success in college and I felt that if I could have that impact on students it would be incredible. That was the motivation to go back to school and pursue a PhD.” What is the difference between an undergraduate and graduate education?

Dr. Staub-French: “The experiences are quite different. Undergrad is as much about learning how to live on your own and be independent as it is about the classes and coursework. Undergrad is a right of passage to becoming an adult: learning time management, live on your own, and how to manage your finances.

“A graduate degree is much more about an intentional choice, pursuing a long-term goal which in my case was to help students succeed by becoming a professor. The diversity of the graduate pool tends to be very different from undergraduate programs. Undergraduate students are mostly right out of high school, around the same age and with similar backgrounds whereas graduate programs are much more international and diverse in age and culture.” How did you end up teaching at The University of British Columbia (UBC)?

Dr. Staub-French: “While I was completing my PhD at Stanford a professor from UBC who was on sabbatical invited me to lunch to talk about research. While we were talking he mentioned that UBC was hiring. To be honest I didn’t know much at all about UBC up to that point, but I knew I’d likely have to leave the San Francisco Bay Area because there weren’t a lot of universities there. I was open to considering anything along the west coast and decided to apply. UBC is a beautiful campus, and Vancouver is a wonderful city, and it felt ‘familiar’ – like a small San Francisco.

“There were also many aspects of Canada that appealed to me. The priorities of the country, a federal government talks about issues like child care, the focus on family, so it felt like a good place to raise a family. We ended up accepting the offer and moved up a year later after I was awarded my PhD.” What have you learned about the dramatic difference between the cost of a university education in Canada vs. the United States?

Dr. Staub-French: “My sense is that Canada has a different set of priorities. In child care, in healthcare, in education, you see a different philosophy with regards to what is up to the individual and what is up to the government. In Canada everyone has basic healthcare and there is a belief that people are entitled to a good education whereas in the U.S. you live and die by your own effort. Canada is willing to subsidize education so that it’s available to most people whereas in the U.S. there isn’t that philosophy about education.

“I’m shocked about how little it costs for a college education in Canada, and I know people here complain because costs are going up, but coming from the U.S. it’s such a luxury!” What should high school students do to keep the door to engineering open, even if they aren’t sure what they want to do?

Dr. Staub-French: “The most important thing is to take all the pre-requisite courses to pursue engineering. In Canada all students should take Physics 12, for example, even though it’s not a required high school course. Taking the pre-requisite math and science courses will leave many doors open.

“There are many resources available on the Internet for students interested in STEM. It’s possible for students to get a much better sense of different STEM fields, what you can do with STEM degrees and what is required.” What are your thoughts about why it as been such a struggle to attract more women to pursue STEM in college?

Dr. Staub-French: “I believe there is a glimmer of hope. The biggest challenge with engineering is that people don’t know what engineering is. Many younger students, from studies we’ve seen, still believe ‘engineers’ drive trains! Engineering as a field has a marketing and image problem so when we do our outreach events we try to de-mystify what engineering really is. If we can better communicate what engineering is and what the opportunities are I think more men and women will be interested in pursuing engineering careers.

“There is a reality that engineering is currently a male-dominated field. We hear from young women that engineering is a ‘boys field’. We also have a retention challenge, keeping women in engineering once they start, which is much more a cultural issue about the workplace.

“At UBC we’ve been very successful over the past six years – we’ve gone from an enrollment of 18% women to over 30% in engineering this year. 30% is a magic number because it’s the first point where a group starts to feel comfortable, and less part of a minority. The most effective step we’ve taken is speaking to what engineering really is, bringing girls in and letting them try out engineering with hands-on exercises. Introducing girls to role models and helping them imagine themselves as engineers.

“While I’m very hopeful with the progress we’ve made, I do have concerns about how young girls in today’s society are objectified and sexualized in a way that wasn’t the case when I was growing up. I have a 10 year-old daughter and when I go to the toy store it’s all pink, even LEGO is pink. LEGO markets ‘LEGO Friends’ for girls whereas for boys there is a huge variety of things that can be built. I worry about how toys are being gendered, the messages young women are receiving, and about how women should behave.” For student just entering an engineering program, what advice do you have to help students survive and thrive?

Dr. Staub-French: “First, I encourage students to believe in themselves. Students are capable of much more than they think they can. Second, an engineering degree is very demanding, there is a high credit load, so time management is critical. And third, build your support community.” Finally, any closing thoughts on Dublin High School?

Dr. Staub-French: “I’m going to be back in Dublin soon and will be bringing my daughters by Dublin High School, it’s completely changed since I went there! There are two things that come to mind thinking back on my Dublin High experience. The first is the amazing math teachers I had. There were three women who I credit with my confidence and success in pursuing engineering. I believe those women, had they grown up in my time, would likely have been engineers or computer scientists. The second is my time playing basketball and how much support we received from the community.”


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