Chair Aims to Increase Girls, Women in Science, Engineering

November 27, 2008 - News Release

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has renewed a prestigious chair at the University of Guelph that is designed to increase participation of girls and women in science and engineering.

The five-year chair position will continue to be held by engineering professor Valerie Davidson, who was named Ontario's NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering in 2003.

"Prof. Davidson has been instrumental in moving more women into science and engineering disciplines," said Anthony Vannelli, dean of the College of Physical and Engineering Science. "The NSERC renewal will allow Val and her team to expand their efforts and continue to excel."

The chair is supported by a $70,000 annual allocation from NSERC, which is matched by the University and by Research In Motion (RIM), the industry partner. RIM will support the chair through annual cash contributions and in-kind support, which might include having its employees participating in outreach activities related to computer technologies.

Vannelli said the collaboration with RIM will open up new opportunities. "The technical leadership RIM can provide will be valuable, given that computer-related engineering and science programs continue to be fields with a significant under-representation of women."

He added that U of G is grateful for the support that Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Co. provided during the first phase of the chair program.

Over the past five years, Davidson and her research team have launched numerous initiatives ranging from science programs at Girl Guide summer camps to helping female scientists and engineers secure research opportunities. She plans to build on these efforts, especially computer-related engineering and science programs.

"We have broad objectives," she said. "We want to get girls excited about science and engineering, we want to recruit university-age women, and we want to retain women as valuable contributors in these fields. There are challenges at every level."

Davidson and her team have built a national network with other academics and advocacy organizations with similar goals, and they will continue their efforts to identify impediments and develop strategies.

"It's clear that the ongoing under-representation of women in these fields is a multi-faceted and complex issue, which has profound social, cultural and organizational roots," she said. "A deeper understanding of causes and remedies calls for interdisciplinary efforts because isolated programs are not sufficient. There's a need for a new level of dialogue and action among people in positions to make change."

Davidson, who has worked in engineering for more than two decades, never had a female professor as a role model. "In fact, from age 11, I never had a female teacher for math, science or engineering. That's what we want to change — the experiences girls are having in elementary school straight through to university and beyond."

She added that increasing female participation goes beyond issues of equity and social responsibility.

"It's a requirement for economic development. Women bring different perspectives and experiences, which allows for more creative solutions to emerging challenges and problems. Their participation ensures that innovations meet the needs and reflect the values of all members of society, and that there is a sufficient pool of skilled innovators in Canada."

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338.

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