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Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Douglass women seek success in STEM futures


Written by Cheryl Makin

NEW BRUNSWICK – Sciences have always played an important role in the history of Douglass Residential College at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, all of its incarnations and its women. In recent years, this importance has become an emphasis, said Assistant Dean Elaine Zundl, who also is director of The Douglass Project for Women in Math, Science and Engineering.

While Douglass caters to students' interests in a wide variety of studies, it offers a specialization for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors. Since her first appointment as dean in 2010, Jacquelyn Litt has renewed the focus on women and STEM majors, Zundl said.

Since its inception as a college in 1918 as the New Jersey College for Women, the institution, now known as Douglass Residential College, has focused on giving women an education that will take them forward in life. At a time when a "woman's place was in the home" was commonplace, Douglass offered majors in sciences, including chemistry, Litt said.

"Douglass and science has had a remarkably strong and exciting history," she said. "It is now the only major public research university with a women's residential college and it also is dedicated to scientific advancement of women and advancement of women leaders."

And in the past few years, that interest in STEM majors for Douglass women has exploded, Zundl said.

"In terms of student engagement, we have more participating in Douglass that are STEM majors," she said.

In 1986, at the inception of The Douglass Project, the college had 180 students in STEM majors, Litt said. Nearly 30 years later, Zundl said, half of the 2014 fall's incoming class were STEM majors.

"That is about 250 new STEM students this year," she said. "Overall, about 800 to 1,000 students participate in The Douglass Project each year."

The support of The Douglass Project

The Douglass Project helps women who are interested in the STEM fields excel and reach their goals. One of the first of its kind in the country, Litt said, The Douglass Project was created with retention and gender gap in mind.

Partnering with Rutgers' science and engineering schools, The Douglass Project offers custom, professional and leadership development programs designed to advance women in STEM. Included in this experience is Project SUPER, a program that offers monthly workshops on careers and opportunities, an introduction to scientific research course, a STEM Research Experience stipend and mentoring support.

These programs help create support systems that encourage women to pursue their educational goals and eventual STEM careers, Zundl said.

"When they get to Rutgers, we make sure that they get a peer mentor, they are put in touch with faculty in their department. We make sure they have access to research programs," Zundl said. "We make sure that they are learning about what a STEM career will be like so they are more likely to stay."

A sophomore physics major, Jennie Coulter, of Manasquan, enrolled in Douglass at the end of her first year. She credits the support of The Douglass Project as having a positive impact on her experience as a student and a woman.

"I feel that the responsiveness of The Douglass Project staff members helped me find my place at Rutgers," she said. "The support for women in STEM not only gave me the chance to become involved in the research community at Rutgers but also has allowed me to connect and guide underclassmen STEM students. I think the leadership skills I've gained through The Douglass Project programming will make me better able to support younger women throughout my career in physics."

Initially, Coulter said, she had doubts about her ability to compete in the physics field. It was support from Douglass that gave her confidence.

"It gave me the ability to understand my academic strengths and also connected me with women in similar majors who understand what it feels like to go to lecture and sometimes be one female in 20 students," she said. "Knowing that there are other women with the same experience has been confidence-inspiring."

Immediate involvement in research

Coulter said she was especially excited about the help Douglass gave her in finding research opportunities. As the recipient of a New Jersey Space Grant Consortium Academic Year Fellowship, Coulter does research on solar materials with Dr. Dunbar Birnie of the Materials Science and Engineering department.

"The kind of support that we offer our students while they are engaged in research is very unique," Zundl said. "We personally match the students with the professors based on common interests and the students' prior knowledge. Because of the mentoring we do and the support program, they are paired with a faculty member that makes sure that they are getting the most out of the experience in the lab."

Sophomore Ameema Zubairi, of East Brunswick, who is majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry, knew she wanted to do research as soon as possible but wasn't sure how to start.

"The Douglass Project provided me with a platform to achieve this goal," she said. "I participated in Project SUPER. I even had the opportunity to present my research at a Poster Session with all of the stipend recipients where professors and other guests were invited to learn about our projects."

Now as a STEM ambassador, Zubairi works with a group of student leaders to implement professional development workshops and programs, networking opportunities and social events for women in STEM. She also had the opportunity to volunteer with the Fourth Grade Science Stars program and teach students from New Brunswick science concepts in a fun and interactive way.

"One of the reasons I was able to achieve this much and continue to actively pursue a career in STEM is because of the valuable advice I have received from the advisers at The Douglass Project," she said. "These advisers are truly invested in your success and constantly strive to provide you with resources that will lead you to it, while giving constant encouragement to attain your goals."



Living-learning communities

Under the umbrella of The Douglass Project are living-learning communities that create cohorts of women studying the same topical area, such as engineering or environmental science, Zundl said.

"These really get women engaged and, in the first year of study, they have established great relationships with other women in their majors that help them to persist to graduation," Zundl said.

Under Litt's time as dean, the Douglass Engineering Living-Learning Community was created in 2012. Located in a dorm on the Busch campus, this community provides engineering students with the chance to live together and take a hands-on engineering course together with a Rutgers faculty member.

"The first year, this involved 20 students living together and supporting each other," Litt said. "All of them asked to continue living together the next year. The chancellor found us a dorm. Now, they enrolled for a third year and all wanted to be together again. Now, we have 70 women engineers all living together in the Douglass Engineering living-learning community excited to be engineers."

"We are almost at the point of having to turn people away," she added. "This year, we had more than 30 first-year students join."

There also is the Bunting-Cobb Residence Hall on the Douglass campus that offers a similar community for women in science and offers graduate mentoring, tutoring, study groups, specialized workshops and a special in-house Exploring Careers in Science course. A future cohort program for computer science students also is in the works, Litt said.

"These learning-living communities build in a sense of community, as well as build their own identities in the field," she said.

The need for women in STEM majors

Litt said that data suggests that Douglass students make a wise choice.

"Our partnership with Rutgers' School of Engineering has increased both the recruitment and retention of women engineering students to record levels," she said. "Research has documented that Douglass students exhibit higher levels of global awareness and engagement than do Rutgers women generally."

There is a need for women in STEM majors and STEM careers, Litt said. According to the state Department of Labor Workforce Development Division of Workforce Research and Analytics, there will be a need in the New Jersey workforce for qualified STEM professionals. By 2022, the department anticipates that 22 percent of the projected employment will be in computer and math (15 percent) and architecture and engineering (6 percent).

Nationally, job demand for engineering and computer science also is expected to grow, Litt said.

"We know there is a problem with women being underrepresented in most fields of STEM," Litt said. "It is a problem in New Jersey and nationally. But, we are not seeing women, especially minority women, rise up through the ranks in the field. In the last few years, The Douglass Project targeted the fields of engineering computer science and chemistry. Our students worked with companies such as PSE&G, AT&T and Verizon.

"They want our women students," she added.

Getting into Douglass

Each year, Douglass Residential College enrolls approximately 500 out of the more than 4,000 new women students who are admitted to Rutgers. Approximately 2,000 students are currently enrolled in Douglass

Women undergraduates from any Rutgers–New Brunswick school can enroll, and current Rutgers students can also join Douglass anytime from their first year through their third year.

Douglass pay the Rutgers tuition. For New Jersey students (tuition, fees, room and board), it is approximately $25,500; for non-New Jersey students it is approximately $40,300.

Special scholarships are available to students for international travel, science education (STEM), graduate study, and tuition

Douglass traditions include the annual "moving-up-of-the-classes" Sacred Path celebration, Yule Log ceremony, Fall Convocation welcoming new students and their families, and Convocation, a ceremony for graduating seniors that takes place the day before Rutger's commencement.

All Douglass women take the Women's Leadership Course, a three-credit course that helps students develop an awareness of themselves as women in today's society.

For more information or speak to a representative of Douglass Residential College, contact the Office of Recruitment and New Student Programs at 848-932-9500 or visitdc@echo.rutgers.edu.

For information about admissions to Rutgers University, visit admissions.rutgers.edu or call 732-445-4636.

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