The University of Arizona

New Virtual Development Center to Bring More Women into Engineering

By Ed Stiles, August 14, 2000

The University of Arizona has been named as one of the nation's seven Development Centers within the Institute for Women and Technology (IWT) Virtual Development Center (VDC).

Each of the nation's Development Centers brings together students and faculty with women in their communities to generate new product ideas through Innovation Workshops. Students and faculty then work throughout the school year on projects that create products from the ideas generated at workshops.

The UA center will help the College of Engineering and Mines recruit and retain women, particularly those from underrepresented groups, says Ray Umashankar, director of the UA Development Center (UA DC) and of the UA Multicultural Engineering Program.

"By showing them real-life applications of engineering that they can be involved in right from the start of their freshman year, we hope to provide a supportive environment that will encourage more young women to earn engineering degrees," Umashankar says.

Anita Borg, an internationally recognized computer scientist and activist on behalf of women, founded IWT in 1998 to bring more women and their ideas into all aspects of technology and to increase the positive effects of technology on the lives of women throughout the world. IWT helps communities, industry, educational institutions and government agencies to benefit from these ideas. It carries out this mission through a variety of programs including workshops, Internet technology communities, publications, conferences, and VDC activities.

The VDC began last year with four charter members: MIT, Purdue, Texas A&M and Santa Clara University. Three more members now have been added: UA, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Smith College, of Northampton, Mass.

The UA DC will receive computer equipment valued at $250,000 from Hewlett-Packard to help start the program. Hewlett-Packard has committed $2 million in equipment donations to the VDC program nationwide for 1999-2000. The equipment will include desktop computers, laptops, printers, scanners and other computer hardware and is scheduled to be delivered to UA in October.

The UA DC program will begin with a workshop to bring together women with both technical and non-technical backgrounds to explore the use of communications and medical informatics technology in delivering health care to rural communities in Arizona. Medical informatics involves using software to deal with large volumes of medical data.

One of the UA DC's first projects will use software developed by Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Ralph Martinez to link rural hospitals to urban hospitals that have sophisticated radiology capabilities. Radiologists at the urban centers will be able to download, read and diagnose a variety of images provided by rural hospitals that may not have the staff on-site to evaluate the images.

Also key to the first workshop and this initial program will be Olivia Sheng, department head in Management and Information Systems and an expert in the area of medical informatics, and Alison Hughes, director of the Arizona Telemedicine Program.

The UA DC will branch out from this initial effort to include a wide variety of research projects, Umashankar says. By becoming involved in a Development Center project, women engineering students will gain valuable experience and a support group that will help them stay focused and involved in earning their degrees. The UA center also is an academic program and participants will be required to select some specific courses to fill their technical elective requirements that relate to the UA DC project they are working on.

"There are tremendous openings and opportunities in technical careers, but there are not enough people to fill these positions," Umashankar says. "We need to help more young women obtain technical degrees so they can take advantage of these opportunities."

Umashankar also is working to raise scholarship money for UA DC students. These scholarships will give students the time to pursue Development Center research that they otherwise would have to spend by working at jobs to pay for their educations.

Since its inception in 1999, the VDC received a total of $4 million in equipment grants to the individual Development Centers from Hewlet-Packard. Additionally, the VDC is supported by direct or in-kind support from Hewlett-Packard, Xerox, Sun Microsystems, Compaq Computers and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The VDC director is Gloria Montano, a senior program manager on loan from Compaq.