SWE, the magazine of the Society of Women Engineers, named Lorraine M. Parker, Ph.D., a “Woman Engineer You Should Know.” The magazine’s annual feature highlights women engineers throughout the country who are making meaningful contributions in the workplace and in our communities.
Parker is director of diversity and student programs at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering. She assumed this role in 2013, following a 31-year career as associate professor of computer science at VCU. Her advocacy for bringing women into engineering has helped VCU establish itself as a top producer of female engineers. In 2014, the American Society for Engineering Education ranked the VCU School of Engineering as the nation's No. 9 engineering school or university based on the percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to women. VCU Engineering has seen a 50 percent increase in female students overall since 2010.
One way Parker helps the VCU School of Engineering nurture and retain talented women students is through innovative programming. A recent example is VCU’s Vertically Integrated Networking for Engineers (VINE). The VINE program is based on small social gatherings of women within the same engineering discipline, but across years of study. Each discipline-specific group has a senior, a junior, a sophomore and a freshman. VINE meetings are monthly and take place over coffee in venues around town. Groups can discuss topics of their choice, but to get the ball rolling they receive suggested prompts. The junior and senior members also receive coaching in how to facilitate effective small-group discussions.
“My freshman year felt daunting due to the ratio of male to female students in the computer engineering field. However, the VINE program combats this disparity by encouraging women to network across grade levels,” said junior Christina Reed. “As a freshman I received valuable advice by interacting with other students in my major, and as I continue my college career I pass on my own advice to the incoming students who join the Computer Engineering group. Attending a VINE meeting instills a sense of camaraderie between myself and other students as we share our experiences.”
The essence of VINE is paying it forward, so each group is asked to take on one “give back” project each year. Groups can help with an outreach activity here at VCU, volunteer at a museum, visit a high school or work with a Girl Scout troop. The possibilities are vast, and the result is powerful: rising vines that link women in engineering and support their climb to the next level.
“The VINE program gives a layer of exposure to women pursuing engineering and makes them aware of the multitude of unique opportunities available to them,” said senior Roxanne Jassawalla. “Dr. Parker is always willing to go the extra mile to ensure women in engineering know that they have a support system here.”