Prism Magazine September 2001

 

 

A Dean of Their Own

- By Joannie Fischer

Engineering students at the University of Washington know that Denice Denton, a self-described "bulldozer," will move mountains when it comes to their education.

When Denice Denton got her first teaching job on the engineering faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, she was the only woman and joined 179 men. For months, she didn't have access to the lab where she and her students needed to work, because of a surly colleague who had changed the locks and because other male colleagues were too fearful to cross him. Denton is currently the engineering dean at the University of Washington in Seattle, and people still mistake her for staff and ask her for coffee at conferences. But instead of getting discouraged by these experiences, Denton has made it her mission to improve students' experiences at engineering school, particularly for women and minorities.

In the past five years as the University of Washington's dean of engineering, Denton has revitalized the school and made it a more inviting environment for nontraditional engineering students and faculty alike. Creating the strongest set of diversity programs in the nation, she has successfully increased the number of female and underrepresented minority students, hired a more diverse staff, and made the University of Washington a model that schools across the nation, from Texas A&M University to the University of California, Berkeley, are following.

What seems especially promising about Denton's approach to the diversity issue is that it doesn't involve complicated formulas or cumbersome programs. Her style is more straightforward, human, and down-to-earth. "Engineers love to solve problems, and here is a problem that's been staring us in the face for a long time," Denton says. "It's not such a hard problem to solve. It just takes a genuine desire to do so."

Where there's a will, there's a way. And if there is a secret to Denton's success, it may be her tremendous willpower to change the system. She sometimes jokes that she is a "bulldozer" for others. "I have always had a really strong sense of social justice and equity," she explains. "As long as I can remember, I have seen people around me being excluded and known that it wasn't right." In her career, Denton is markedly inclusive, showing a devotion to each student's development that warms the atmosphere of the engineering school. "From the outset of my stay at UW, I realized that Denise was extremely committed to my research goals," says post-doctoral researcher Yael Hanein. "I know that others at the college, regardless of race or gender, enjoy the same kind of dedication...diversity has been a very welcome product of this approach."

Denton, 41, was born in a rural farm town not far from Houston, Texas. "It was racist, sexist, and horribly oppressive," she recalls. "I couldn't wait to get out of there." Luckily, Denton's mother was a high school calculus teacher who kept her immune from the notion that math and science aren't for girls. Young Denton was further inspired by her uncle Gilbert, who worked with NASA on history-making projects such as the design of a lunar buggy. A summer program at Rice University after her junior year in high school sealed Denton's decision to make a life in technology, and her bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. would all be earned at M.I.T. Right off the bat as an undergraduate, Denton chose as her independent project to design a course for non-engineering women students to show them the joys of "techie stuff" like building circuits and handling a soldering iron. "I have always had a desire to show people how truly exciting engineering can be," she explains.

Upon graduation, Denton was offered teaching jobs at seven colleges, and at each, she would be the only woman on the engineering faculty. She chose the University of Wisconsin atMadison. Being the only woman on the faculty, the isolation from all the usual collegial networks was severe. Nonetheless, Denton persevered and managed to earn tenure within five years and to collect national awards and accolades for her work, such as the IEEE Professor of the Year Award and the Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation.

She quickly became the most popular teacher on campus, winning more student awards than any other engineering faculty member. In 1994, Denton designed a new class for freshmen engineering students, to give them a taste of what the field is really like in hopes of preventing so many dropouts. At most universities, at least 15 percent of students drop out by the end of their first year and, even more troubling, 35 percent of women decide that engineering isn't for them. That is not surprising, says Denton, because so many of the early courses do not get at the essence of what engineering has to offer but instead cover the more basic, abstract subjects like calculus. The first semester of her experimental class involved designing access for the disabled to over 50 historically preserved homesteads from 150 years ago that make up a tourist site known as "Old Wisconsin." The hands-on class was a huge hit, soon became a requirement at the school, and proved Denton to be a truly student-oriented professor. The following year, the National Science Foundation created a new national Institute for Science Education at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and named Denton co-head of the $10 million organization, designed to systematically study results of education reforms in math and science, and engineering and technology.

Meanwhile, Denton created a network for women faculty at Wisconsin that included biweekly lunches and evening meetings. "All it took was someone's living room and some cheese and crackers," she says. "Yet, one colleague told me that if we hadn't been getting together as a group, she would have definitely left the school because without the support, it was just too difficult." Vickie Pan, a former graduate student, also recalls that Denton's support and encouragement helped her stay the course through a very difficult time. Pan was a chemistry student from Taiwan who happened to take an inter-departmental engineering seminar with Denton. "Everything she taught was so much easier to understand and get excited about than what even some of the most brilliant professors [in chemistry] were teaching," Pan remembers. "And it was so clear that she really cared about us and wanted us to do really well, not just in school, but in our careers later on."

Pan immediately sought Denton out to be her doctoral thesis advisor, even though Denton's expertise was in microcircuits and Pan was writing about properties of blood plasma. "The atmosphere in graduate school is very tough, and your self-confidence gets really shaky," Pan explains. "Many professors don't really think about a student's development, and they can make brutal, discouraging comments, so it's easy to feel like you're doing something that nobody really cares about." But Denton had a way of reaching out even to the most timid students, Pan says, and of convincing them that their individual work was indeed very important. "She would always say, ‘You should write this up into a paper and we'll submit it to a journal,' or she would encourage me to submit abstracts of my work to a scientific conference," says Pan. "She's given me the confidence to stick with a project even when I start to fear that I'm not up to the task."

 

BREAKING THE BIG BARRIER

In 1996, Denton was named the first female engineering dean of a major research university, the University of Washington. At age 36, she was also the school's youngest dean, taking on an $81.8 million annual budget, 225 faculty members, and more than 3,000 students. She immediately began what the Seattle Times called the biggest restructuring at the University of Washington in recent history. "When I arrived, things were stagnant," she recalls. "I wanted to shake things up and get things moving." A massive review process ensued, with input from all corners; all comments made and conclusions reached are still available at the department's Web site. One major conclusion: the department needed to be more student-centered. "Other schools can be very technology-centered, machine-centered, or even building-centered," explains Denton. "We have decided to be very people-centered." Faculty and students marvel at Denton's tireless enthusiasm, and at her availability to every last person who wants her ear. "There's no doubt that she truly listens to our ideas, and acts on them with a can-do attitude," says Cynthia Altman, director of the Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching on Campus. "It makes all of our lives so much better."

For example, when the student advisory committee complained that freshmen and sophomores were feeling alienated and anonymous in the system, Denton quickly created a peer group for new students complete with social events, mentoring partnerships with peers, professors, and professional engineers, and informational updates to keep everyone feeling at home and in the loop. When a post-doc complained to Denton that there was no sense of community for her on campus, Denton devoted some resources to helping her form a post-doc peer group. "It's a good example of how by changing the system, everybody wins, not just women and minorities," says Pan, who followed Denton to the University of Washington to do her post-doctoral work, and helped Denton redesign some freshmen classes. One of the most popular new classes is "Aero for Poets," an introductory engineering class that teaches students to build wooden planes and water rockets, and is always oversubscribed.

Despite setbacks such as the 1998 ban on affirmative action at colleges in Washington, which led to a massive drop in the number of minority students who even applied to UW, Denton has managed to increase the diversity of her students and staff above national averages. The percentage of women in the program has risen four percentage points so far, from 19 percent in 1996 to 23 percent today, and she is focused on continuing that upward trend. And in a state that is 87 percent white, Denton has boosted the minority population to 35 percent. Denton credits her outreach programs, such as active recruiting on Native American reservations and the "Emerging Leaders" program, which brings at least 70 kids from inner-city high schools to campus each year for a weekend, with keeping nontraditional students interested in UW engineering. And she credits the half-dozen peer-support networks on campus, several of which have won Presidential awards—established by Bill Clinton in 1996—with preventing the discouragement and alienation that comes from being a nontraditional student. “Here at UW, one of our African-American students was mistaken for a gardener when he came to the dean's office. These kinds of experiences are very disheartening, a real burden, and if you don't counter them, people will flee the environment."

But it's hard to imagine any student fleeing this pied piper of engineering, whose simple formula, devotion to student needs, has transformed the UW engineering school into a community where students of both genders and all races are thriving.

Joannie Fischer is a freelance writer in Palo Alto, California.

 

prism@asee.org