Female trio helps lead engineering technologies at Penn College

Published 08.16.2021

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For two years, Lauryn A. Stauffer has seen only male faces in her electronics classes at Pennsylvania College of Technology. This fall, she’ll at least see multiple women leaders within the School of Engineering Technologies.

The school devoted to careers rooted in science, technology, engineering and math boasts three female assistant deans.

Kathleen D. Chesmel and Ellyn A. Lester were hired in late spring to head the Materials Science and Engineering Technologies Division and the Construction and Architectural Technologies Division, respectively. They join longtime college employee Stacey C. Hampton, who is assistant dean of industrial and computer technologies.

Three female assistant deans for the School of Engineering Technologies at Pennsylvania College of Technology are a source of inspiration for students like Lauryn A. Stauffer (third from left), who is majoring in automation engineering technology: robotics and automation. While women comprise nearly half the labor force, they account for just 27% of STEM workers. From left are: Stacey C. Hampton, industrial and computer technologies; Ellyn A. Lester, construction and architectural technologies; Stauffer; and Kathleen D. Chesmel, materials science and engineering technologies. “It’s women empowerment! I love it!” said Stauffer, beaming with pride. The Bath native is halfway to a bachelor’s degree in automation engineering technology: robotics and automation and is thrilled to see women within the school who share her affinity for STEM.

“It’s hard transitioning into male-dominated fields,” she said. “My first year, I felt lost because basically all the guys in class didn’t want anything to do with me. Mr. (Ken J.) Kinley and Mr. (Randall L.) Moser (assistant professors of electronics and computer engineering technologies) were great, but it wasn’t until this past year when the guys started to realize I don’t bite.

“I didn’t have any female mentors, and they (the assistant deans) will be a great resource. I can go to them for advice or just to talk. Honestly, it means a lot.”

Women comprise nearly half the labor force but account for just 27% of STEM workers. That figure from the Department of Labor represents snail-like progress. In 1990, 23% of STEM workers were women.

The result is that women miss out on enriching careers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the median annual salary for STEM jobs in 2019 was $86,980 and $38,160 for all other occupations. Beyond attractive financial compensation, STEM positions are impactful.

“STEM careers provide an incredible opportunity to be at the forefront of changes in technology, changes in advancements and changes in ways to improve our lives. If you’re interested in those aspects, STEM is the place for you. These careers have layers of opportunities,” explained Davie Jane Gilmour, Penn College president.

“Having three women in leadership roles for engineering technologies speaks well for Penn College because they bring diverse backgrounds and interesting perspectives for prospective and existing students,” she added. “While acknowledging the uniqueness of gender in their roles, it’s important to remember we looked foremost at their skills and abilities to do the job. The fact that they are nontraditional by gender in engineering is a bonus.”

Chesmel holds a doctorate and a master’s degree in bioengineering and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. Her resume includes extensive teaching and industry experience. Most recently, Chesmel taught STEM certification courses for secondary school teachers and directed the Make-It-Matter Materials Science Camp at Penn State University.

“I’ve always loved science and math,” Chesmel said. “My dad was a chemical engineer, but I really didn’t know what he did on a day-to-day basis.”

A trip to an orthopedist as a young teen – necessitated by a gymnastics injury – helped Chesmel connect her interests to a STEM career.

“The office had prostheses on the shelf, and I was like, ‘Tell me about these.’ That was the beginning of wanting to be a biomedical engineer and build orthopedic implants,” said Chesmel, who is the co-inventor of two U.S. patents in the biomedical field.

Lester earned an undergraduate degree in journalism, but her “innate curiosity” led to architecture and later construction after her husband enrolled in a master’s of architecture program.

“I would go with him to the architecture library, and I just found it very compelling,” she said. “I fell in love with some of the things that were written about architecture.”

A few years later, Lester finished her own master’s degree in architecture, which led to leadership positions in firms and professional associations devoted to the profession. She later transitioned to construction management and specialized in the built environment, defined as all manmade structures in a setting for human activity.

Lester was chair of built environment programs at Stevens Institute of Technology and is completing her doctorate in built environment at the University of Salford (England).

Hampton obtained a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education. She served as a secondary teacher, literacy instructor, 4-H extension agent and college prep coordinator for various school districts in Pennsylvania before arriving at Penn College in 2006.

Hired to be the coordinator of matriculation and retention for the college’s engineering programs, Hampton immersed herself in plastics, electronics, machining, welding and other STEM-related majors by visiting classes and labs and talking with faculty. By the time she was named assistant dean in 2013, Hampton was a tireless advocate and recruiter for STEM majors.

“When I started, I knew engineering in my head but didn’t know all the intricacies behind it and the creative career possibilities. I wish I knew that when I was a young student because I might have gone into plastics or some other technical field,” she said. “I don’t think the demand for STEM workers has slowed down since I came to the college. There seems to be more demand now.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be nearly 800,000 new STEM jobs by 2029, an increase of 8%.

“If we don’t influence career decisions and promote STEM careers at an early age, going all the way back to elementary school and middle school, it’s very difficult to do so in 11th or 12th grade, especially if students haven’t taken the right math and science classes to prepare them for STEM careers,” Gilmour said.

“Girls can do the work necessary in math and science that can lead to STEM careers just as well as boys,” Hampton said. “I just don’t think they understand what the careers are.”

In describing those careers, Chesmel believes it’s important to stress the creative and humanistic nature of the fields to dispel the STEM stereotype of stiff and sterile jobs isolated from society.

“You’re creating things that didn’t exist before or taking pieces that did exist and putting them together in a new way,” she said. “And when you can position STEM careers to women as being empathetic and caring, you generate more interest. I think women have an inherent desire to give back and help people. So many of the STEM fields are humanistic at their core. You’re doing things to benefit society.”

Society would benefit from more women excelling in such careers.

“There have been lots of studies that prove diversity of experience and thought are incredibly important,” Lester said. “When you can bring people together with various expertise and perspectives and work together for the common good, it’s amazing.”

“The thought process for men is based on their experiences, and their experiences are different than mine as a woman and a mother,” Chesmel explained. “The more diverse voices you have, the more the decision-making culture is going to reflect the needs of the people.”

Bradley M. Webb, dean of engineering technologies, hopes that the presence and work of Chesmel, Hampton and Lester will help the college do its part to increase diversity in STEM. During the 2020-21 academic year, the student population in the divisions represented by the three assistant deans was about 91% male.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that people need to see people like themselves to envision getting into those careers,” Webb said. “Traditionally, STEM fields have not had a lot of women role models. Now we have three female assistant deans in engineering who can show young women coming into our programs that STEM is a possibility for them. It’s like, ‘She did it; so can I.’”

Stauffer, the aspiring automation engineer, plans to recite that mantra when giving campus tours to prospective female students interested in the School of Engineering Technologies. She conducts a couple tours weekly in her role as a Presidential Student Ambassador.

“For sure, I’m going to tell them that we have three assistant deans for engineering who are female,” she said. “I’m very Penn College proud about that!”

For information about majors offered by the School of Engineering Technologies, call 570-327-4520.

For information on Penn College, a national leader in applied technology education, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.