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Cornell participates in project that supports women studying science

Cornell will be one of 15 universities participating in a new project to support women studying science and engineering.

Called "MentorNet," the project will use the Internet and electronic mail to connect female engineering, science and math students across the country with volunteer mentors employed in scientific and technical fields in private industry.

"While they may achieve the same academic success as their male counterparts, female students in engineering and science must struggle with a university environment still heavily dominated by men and often a gender-biased classroom environment. Some women feel very isolated," said Susan Staffin Metz, director of the Women in Engineering Programs & Advocates Network (WEPAN), which is spearheading the project.

The mentors will serve as role models, provide realistic views of the training and preparation necessary to be successful, and advise students about overcoming obstacles, Metz said.

Cornell is seeking 20 undergraduate women to participate this year, according to R.J. Burt, interim director of women's programs in the College of Engineering, who is local liaison for the national project. Interested students should apply directly on MentorNet's web site, Burt said.

Cornell has long recognized the problems faced by women in engineering and science classrooms and is working to overcome them, Burt said. "It's well-known that there are many methods of teaching and learning. This College of Engineering is adapting some of those methods to make this a more accessible place for all kinds of students," she said. Other programs in place include tutoring for nontraditional engineering students and "Academic Excellence Workshops," which encourage collaboration among students rather than competition in the classroom.

Currently, about 23 percent of undergraduate engineering students at Cornell are women, down from a high of about 27 percent a few years ago. The national average varies from 20 to 30 percent.

MentorNet is still in a pilot phase, Burt said, and will be open to larger numbers of students soon. The project's goal is to link a total of 250 female students nationwide with mentors in the first year and 5,000 by the fifth year.

MentorNet is the outgrowth of a two-year pilot project at Dartmouth College. The program was created by Carol Muller while she was an associate dean of engineering there. Muller is now executive director of MentorNet, operating from donated office space at the College of Engineering at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif.

Muller notes that MentorNet isn't designed to replace face-to-face networking. It will, though, allow the participation of many professionals and students whose time schedules, geographical locations or other restraints might prevent traditional mentoring, she said.

The Intel Foundation is providing a first-year challenge grant of $100,000 to encourage other businesses to support MentorNet. The AT&T Foundation is committing $200,000 to the project in the first year and $100,000 in the second year.

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