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Cornell Engineering

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By Ellen James Mbuqe

It was a moment any student team dreads. 

Cornell Racing had spent months designing, building, testing and retesting its formula-style racecar in preparation for the Toronto Shootout. But during its timed trial, Cornell’s car stopped dead in its tracks.

Team leader Nina Buchakjian ’15 MAE, engine subteam leader TeAnn Nguyen ’15 MAE, and electrical subteam leader Sarah Behringer ’16 ECE remember that day. 

“The engine problems that had plagued us earlier that week had followed us to Canada. When we saw the car completely stopped on the track, the three of us, with several other members of the team, rushed out there to figure out what had happened,” says Buchakjian. “Unfortunately, the failure was beyond what we could fix at that moment.” 

There as they took this disappointing moment in stride, Rebecca Macdonald, Cornell Engineering’s Swanson Director of Engineering Student Project Teams, couldn’t help but notice something different about the members of Cornell’s team. “As I watched our students fix the car I was struck by the image of three female leaders for the Cornell Racing team working together in the pits,” Macdonald says. “In fact, while we were at the Toronto Shootout I noticed that many of the other racing teams were predominantly male. It was a moment that made me take notice and realize that Cornell Engineering is doing something special.”

Historically, engineering has been a male-dominated profession. According to the latest figures from the National Science Foundation, male students comprise 81.4 percent of all first-year undergrad students enrolled in engineering programs nationwide. 

But Cornell Engineering shatters the national trend. Close to 40 percent of its student body is female. Of the nearly 1,100 students on teams, 37 percent are women. Nearly every single Cornell Engineering student team has female leaders.

“The teams are a reflection of our student body,” Macdonald says. “It is exciting to see Cornell ahead of the trend and being a trailblazer in producing engineering leaders from all backgrounds and genders.”

Overall, the female student leaders for these teams represent a vibrant mix of backgrounds and experience levels, but they all share a passion for engineering, problem solving, and creating smart, innovative design. But in the larger engineering world where women are still a smaller minority, there are moments when being a young female engineer means that they stand out from the crowd. For some, it can be a light-hearted moment. 

“Sometimes we make jokes that we should go out for girls’ night. Once we even received a silly award at a competition for having the most girls on the team,” says Tiffany Ly ’15 MSE, team leader for Cornell Engineering’s Concrete Canoe team, which is split evenly among male and female students. 

But for some, standing out from the crowd also means having to confront the biases. 

“There are moments where I notice that someone sees me as being different because I am a woman or young. What I’ve learned is that I can’t let it bother me and ultimately, I know if I work hard, the results will show for themselves and people will respect that,” says Corinne Lippe ’16 MAE, leader of the Mars Rover’s drive systems subteam. “I do take it as a challenge when someone judges me. I want to prove them wrong.”

Likewise, Brecken Blackburn ’15 ECE, subteam leader for the Engineering World Health team, says that she has noticed the surprised reactions when someone learns she is an engineering student. 

“The reactions are never hurtful, but it is obvious that I baffle their expectations of what an engineer should look like,” Blackburn says. 

Many female students interviewed for this article spoke of the disbelief they have encountered when people learn they are engineering majors. Like Blackburn reported, it is never harmful but the reactions illustrate that there are still people who consider engineering the domain of men.

Lance Collins, the Joseph Silbert Dean of Engineering, says that attracting an equal representation of the genders is an important goal for Cornell Engineering and for the entire scientific and research community. 

“Engineering needs to be open and inclusive in order to support a culture of discovery and creativity. It is well known that diverse teams yield a wider range of ideas that ultimately lead to better outcomes,” Collins says. “Role models are a critical component to helping girls and young women consider engineering careers. Role models help break down the stereotypes of engineering and showcase the real-life possibilities within the field.” 

Inshera Abedin ’15 CEE, the co-leader of the Steel Bridge team says that seeing other women in positions of leadership had a tremendous impact on her. 

“I am grateful for the confident women who have taken on these roles and paved the way for me. The past female leaders for the Steel Bridge have always been role models for me,” Abedin says,. “It is inspiring to see women taking on these roles and paving the way for the rest of us.”

Cornell Racing saw the power of role models almost immediately. Buchakjian says that since more women have joined the team, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of female prospects. “We’re guessing that it has probably doubled from past years, ” she says. “I can only assume why this has happened but I believe that having more women leaders on our team seems more approachable and more girls are willing to talk to us and learn about the team.” 

All student team members leave Cornell Engineering with valuable real-world experience on their resumes. Today, the opportunities in engineering make it one of the most attractive fields for economic and job security. Economic forecasts show that some of the greatest job growth and best compensation will occur in engineering and advanced technology-related fields, according to the Society of Women Engineers.

“When students participate in these teams they are acquiring an enhanced skill set that will serve them well in jobs after graduation. The students are not just graduating with fantastic degrees but they know how to motivate team members, resolve conflict, and interact with colleagues with a variety of skill levels,” says Macdonald. “When I see these teams, I know I’m looking at the future leaders of engineering.”

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Erin Fischell ’10 MAE feels very strongly about the benefits of working on a student team.

“That was an important part of my undergraduate experience,” said Fischell. “You get the experiential learning and the opportunity to work on real engineering issues in these large, multifaceted teams that are similar to what you experience in the real world.”

Fischell should know. She was a member of the Cornell University Autonomous Underwater Vehicle for four years and team leader in 2009 and 2010. Both years, the team won the International RoboSub Competition.

Today she is enrolled in a joint Ph.D. program in mechanical and ocean engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technoogy with an appointment at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Her research has focused on acoustic sensing by autonomous underwater vehicles. Looking back on her four years at Cornell Engineering and her experience with the CUAUV, Fischell said it was an invaluable experience that prepared her and her teammates for post-grad life. 

“Cornell does experiential learning better than anybody else and the program has only gotten better. I don’t see anywhere else the kind of student-focused support that Cornell Engineering provides. The students run the entire teams, from ideas to execution to fundraising. This is one reason students choose to come to Cornell and why they do not have any trouble getting hired or getting into the grad school of their choice. When I think of my teammates, they are at Apple, Google, Amazon, SpaceX, and Honeywell or studying at MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, Duke or Stanford,” said Fischell.

Fischell echoes the sentiments of other women about the challenges of being a female in a male-dominated field. 

“In my experience there is an interesting duality in being a woman in engineering. I believe that when you prove your competence and do your job, people will always accept you. But it takes more work as a woman to get your foot in the door,” she said. “Additionally, there are positive male attributes that are seen as a negative in a woman. An assertive woman is called names.” 

But Fischell said that the experience of working on the student teams is crucial to building confidence for young engineers. 

“If you don’t feel confident, you might not open your mouth or speak up and give your opinion. But while working on CUAUV, I got experience while working with and then leading my fellow engineering students.”