Susan Metz: Catalyzing change to increase diversity in STEM

MetzSusan Metz works at national and local levels to improve engineering education and to increase access, retention, and advancement of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Metz has secured substantial federal, corporate, and foundation funding to support multi-institutional research, curriculum, and programmatic efforts, working with over 200 four-year colleges and universities, community colleges, and professional organizations. As executive director of diversity and inclusion at Stevens Institute of Technology, she catalyzes efforts to increase faculty and student diversity and to enhance the university culture to promote success for all faculty and students. Metz is a founder and past president of the Women in Engineering ProActive Network and has served on advisory boards of organizations that significantly influence national STEM policy, including the National Science Foundation and National Academy of Engineering. Metz is a recipient of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring and the Maria Mitchell Women in Science Award, and she is a Fellow of the Association for Women in Science.

The profile below was authored by Stefany Y. Holguin, Georgia Institute of Technology, based on her interview with Susan Metz in 2014.

Susan S. Metz

Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Senior Research Associate
Stevens Institute of Technology

M.A., Group Dynamics & Counseling Psychology, Seton Hall University, 1978
B.A., Psychology, Boston University, 1976

The birth of WEPAN

In the 1980s, women were not applying for undergraduate STEM programs. Unlike their male peers, even if women demonstrated skill in math and science, they simply did not perceive a STEM major as a logical next step. The leadership at Stevens Institute of Technology realized that it was going to be necessary to take proactive measures to attract women into its undergraduate STEM majors.

Stevens hired me to direct an initiative to increase awareness about the field of engineering among young women in high school and their parents, teachers, and guidance counselors. After conducting research in the area of career development, I started attending the conferences offered by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE). In the sea of men present at these conferences, I found myself drawn to several of the women there who had interests parallel to mine. One woman in particular was Jane Daniels from Purdue University. We initially connected over discussions about enrolling and retaining women at our respective universities. In short order, we moved beyond our own universities and asked, “Which other engineering schools care about this issue?”, “Who else is doing something innovative for women in STEM?”, and “How can we leverage what we know and collaborate with others to have more of a national impact?” These are the questions we decided we needed to take action on—we needed to see how to generate action around this issue on a national level.

In 1989, Jane introduced me to Suzanne Brainard from the University of Washington, and together we submitted a successful proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund a conference focused on the recruitment and retention of women engineering. Two hundred people from over a hundred universities attended the conference. The primary issue was how to organize, given competing priorities, limited resources, and the desire to have an impact. We decided to establish an organization that focused exclusively on women in engineering. This was the start of Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN) [formerly Women in Engineering Programs & Advocates Network], now celebrating its 25th year.

Launching the community into the national spotlight

In the first ten years of WEPAN, our goal was to operationalize women in STEM efforts quickly and effectively at engineering schools throughout the country. Substantial funding was secured from various sources such as NSF, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Energy, AT&T, Alcoa, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to create curriculum and conduct professional development workshops. The WEPAN Regional Training Seminars were delivered over a ten-year period, providing administrators and faculty with resources to support the development of retention and recruitment programs, improving grant writing, and leveraging resources. WEPAN flourished, attracting committed board members who had business interests in STEM diversity and 600 members from nearly 200 engineering schools. A critical element to WEPAN’s success (then and now) is the personal investment of time of its members who benefited from WEPAN’s work and in turn wanted to contribute to the organization. Collaboration, sharing, and volunteerism remain core values of WEPAN. As a result, after about 10 years of this level of effort, formal programs focused on recruitment and retention of women in engineering grew from about 20 established programs to 100 campus-based programs.

For me, the experience of establishing a credible organization that played a role in developing a cadre of professionals who could move the “women in STEM” agenda forward was incredibly exciting. The national perspective I gained was invaluable. The opportunities for collaboration increased dramatically; Stevens benefited from my knowledge, experience, and network; and I connected with two special women from whom I learned so much.

I smile when I recall that after accepting the position at Stevens to increase the representation of women in STEM at the university, my thought was, “I guess I’ll be job hunting in about five years, because this issue is going to be solved.”

The need for role models for underrepresented groups

I had one of those “aha” moments early in my career that drew me into this work. In the 1980s, the Exxon Foundation funded a week-long summer residential program to increase interest and engagement of young women in STEM fields. Forty high school students came from all over the country, and typically they were the only female in their AP math and science classes. For them, just meeting each other was not only exciting but also a relief—they realized that there were other “normal” girls who were smart and interested in engineering and science. At the end of the week, after participating in field trips, research experiences, and panel discussions including women college students and practicing engineers and scientists, I asked each person to share a reflection. Sara, a very academically talented junior from California stood up and said, “Until I came to Stevens and met other women who were practicing engineers and scientists, I never thought I could be an engineer or scientist. I never thought I could be successful at this.” I remember thinking, “If this is the perspective from an outstanding, high-achieving student, what is everyone else thinking?”

Years later, I heard a similar sentiment from a father whose daughter attended one of the Stevens Women in Engineering & Science Summer programs. I was speaking at a symposium in Washington, D.C., as a recipient of the President’s Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring. During the question-answer period, this gentleman got up and thanked me, because 15 years ago, his daughter decided to major in electrical engineering and now enjoys a successful career as a result of the amazing women engineers and scientists she met during that program. That was a personal thrill.

Although things have changed since the ’80s, and women are often the majority of students in their advanced math and science classes, role models continue to be critical. Interestingly, women in high school are often surprised by the lack of women in some STEM disciplines, because their experience in high school advanced math and science courses does not parallel the demographics they find in college. If women do not see other women in their college courses and in the professoriate, contributing to the STEM enterprise and succeeding, they wonder if they belong. And now, women have so many career options in fields such as business and finance, law, and medicine. So the question is, why should they focus their energy and talent in an area that does not value their participation? Engineering needs to do better.

ENGAGE bridges research and the classroom

In 2009, I had the opportunity to be the principal investigator of a multi-institutional project funded by NSF to increase retention for women in engineering. ENGAGE ( works to improve the academic experience of undergraduate engineering students by working with faculty and administrators to implement three research-based strategies. The strategies selected by the ENGAGE management team were chosen because they are supported by a rigorous body of research and because they are enhancements rather than wholesale changes to the curriculum.

The strategies are (1) to implement proven teaching and learning strategies to improve students’ spatial visualization skills; (2) to involve faculty who teach first- and second-year courses in efforts to use and develop everyday examples in engineering that are familiar and engaging to students to illustrate theoretical concepts; and (3) to involve faculty who teach first- and second-year courses in efforts that build faculty knowledge and skill to improve faculty-student interaction inside and outside of the classroom. What is exciting about ENGAGE and unique about this NSF grant is that there is an understanding, based on decades of research, that we know what it takes to retain students in engineering. Rather than researching the issue further, ENGAGE was funded to develop and implement approaches that put into practice research that typically gets shelved after traditional dissemination efforts are employed, such as conference presentations and journal articles. ENGAGE has had some success. Three years of data collection from faculty and administrators across the 70 engineering schools formally associated with ENGAGE reveal that over 1,300 faculty have participated in efforts to improve faculty student interaction (impacting 10,000 students); 500 faculty have used the project’s everyday examples in engineering to teach technical concepts (impacting 20,000 students); and 1,300 students with weak spatial visualization skills have received training, and nearly all have improved their skills. And these numbers do not reflect the activity of the 47,000 unique website visitors who downloaded resources over 115,000 times from

Although we deliberated for a while, one of the decisions made by the ENGAGE leadership team was to disseminate and market ENGAGE strategies as a way to improve retention for all students, rather than just women engineering students. This decision was based primarily on the assumption that engineering schools would be more inclined to participate—expend time and money—if their efforts served both men and women. The argument against this stealth approach was that it diminished the issues related to women in engineering. In hindsight, this was the right decision, because we were asking faculty to make changes in their behavior towards students (faculty-student interaction) and in their pedagogy (everyday examples in engineering), and asking schools to augment their curriculum (spatial visualization skills). Change is hard, and the current evaluation structure in most engineering schools doesn’t reward the changes being promoted by ENGAGE. However, intrinsically motivated faculty who want to be better professors and want their students to succeed are eager to embrace ENGAGE strategies. To ask faculty to make these changes to address just a segment of their undergraduate population was asking too much. The fact is, the changes ENGAGE promotes to retain students, although disproportionately impacting women in a positive way, also improve the academic experience for men.

Critically surveying engineering curricula

I was involved in an innovative NSF-funded project entitled, “Deconstructing Engineering Education Programs.” The concept was to reinvent the mechanical engineering curriculum from the bottom up, take it apart, and put it back together again to attract a broader group of students, particularly women, because mechanical engineering is one of the largest engineering disciplines and has extremely low representation of women. Curricula across 10 universities were examined, and there was a real lack of consistency between topics being taught under courses with the same name. Although mechanical engineering is considered a very structured curriculum, there is actually considerable variability across schools. This variability provides the opportunity to reconsider the mechanical engineering curriculum and maybe other curricula as well. Our team raised questions such as, “Could an engineering curriculum be multi-pronged to appeal to students who want an engineering background but want to be a high school teacher, a lawyer, a science writer, or an informed politician?” Current engineering programs effectively require that high school students decide they want to be engineers by age 17, prior to submitting their college admissions applications. Many bright students, particularly young women, are not ready to give up other interests such as languages and music or the opportunity to take interesting elective courses to pursue an engineering degree. Often the jam-packed engineering curriculum precludes participation in other areas of interest and requires a nearly exclusive focus on engineering—unless you want to take seven years to graduate, which is not an affordable option these days. Isn’t college a time for exploration? This competitive circumstance eliminates so many people, particularly women and people of color, from the broader engineering enterprise.

Overall, there has been substantial progress made in improving diversity in engineering and how we think and deliver engineering education. Yet we need to keep pushing to increase knowledge, awareness, and engagement among academic leaders who can influence others of the need to improve and level the playing field to attract talented students from all demographics and to retain those who have chosen engineering.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Think of an educational practice or policy that you believe benefits students. Are there students in certain circumstances or demographic groups whom you expect might especially benefit from this practice or policy? How might these considerations affect the way you promote that practice or policy?


Photo provided by Susan Metz.