By Kaitlin Murphy
A mural depicting female engineers on bright, blocky backgrounds now stretches across a wall off the main entrance of the A.W. Smith Building.
What was once a blank space, cluttered with garbage cans and recycling bins, now has been creatively and colorfully transformed by Cleveland artist Rachel Latina into a “billboard” with an important message of expanding diversity in traditionally male-dominated fields—a mission of many across the university, including the Case School of Engineering.
“The message that [Professor] Daniel Lacks and I worked together to achieve was that the everyday woman could be a chemical engineer,” Latina said. “I felt [the mural] would also inspire young women who perhaps felt intimidated by the notion of the field being male-dominated. I hope it gives encouragement to all the students, both male and female.”
The mural is just one of the ways the department has tried to inspire more women to pursue engineering.
“There is a theory,” said Lacks, the C. Benson Branch Professor of Chemical Engineering, “that women would be more interested in engineering if the impact on society is more strongly emphasized.” This theory guides many of his decisions as chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and as an advocate for women in the field.
“These efforts have been longstanding in our department,” Lacks said. In 2003, for example, Professor Chung-Chiun Liu, Distinguished University Professor and the Wallace R. Persons Professor of Sensor Technology and Control Professor, Chemical Engineering, received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring for his mentoring of female high school researchers.
He cited other departmental endeavors to encourage more women to pursue engineering and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields—from hosting more than 60 local middle-school girls at campus engineering labs to implementing a study abroad course that drives home the link between engineering and the positive effect it can have on society.
At Case Western Reserve University, women comprise nearly one-third of undergraduate engineering programs—well above the national average of 19 percent (as of 2012)—and female engineering students actually carry a higher average GPA than their male counterparts, Lacks said.
“The more we showcase just how capable and competent we are, the more we’ll be accepted,” third-year engineering student Katherine Koning said. “Some of the most impressive advancements in the hard sciences have come from women—think Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie.”
Latina’s piece aims to overturn stereotypes in math and science by representing the female faces of the fields. “As an artist, I feel an obligation to be a voice that speaks out against these biased point of views,” she said. “I am very proud and honored to be the artist to paint this mural celebrating women in science.”