A young boy pointing a shining flashlight at the camera.

A proud student shows off the flashlight he just built in a workshop run by D-Lab I: Development students working in Kolkata, India. (Photo courtesy of Brooke A. Jarrett on Flickr.)

Meaningful work.  Isn’t that what we all want?

Meaningful work—specifically, societally meaningful work—might also be a key to increasing women’s participation in engineering careers. (Not to mention making our world a better place for everyone, regardless of gender.)

Countless studies have noted that only about 15 to 20% of engineers are women, and despite many efforts to raise that percentage, it hasn’t been rising much. In 2014, U.C. Berkeley launched a new Ph.D. minor in development engineering, with thesis work on solutions for low-income communities. Dr. Lina Nilsson, innovation director at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, was surprised that the program enrollment was 50% women, without any targeted outreach toward that end.

Interesting, right? As Dr. Nilsson describes in her recent New York Times opinion piece:

Women seem to be drawn to engineering projects that attempt to achieve societal good. Curious to learn whether that was true at other universities, my colleagues and I contacted the dozens of universities that have programs aimed at reducing global poverty and inequality. What we found was consistent and remarkable…

At the interdisciplinary D-Lab at M.I.T., which focuses on developing “technologies that improve the lives of people living in poverty,” 74 percent of over 230 enrolled students this past year were women. This makes the D-Lab one of the few engineering initiatives in the country that has a severalfold higher enrollment of women than men.

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Beyond MIT and U.C. Berkeley, Dr. Nilsson recounts similar results in programs at University of Michigan, Arizona State, University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, Santa Clara University, and Princeton.  Perhaps we’re seeing the start of a healthy transformation.

What’s a MIT D-Lab class like? Anchored by hands-on projects with community partners around the world, students use their math, science, engineering, social science and business skills to tackle global poverty issues. You can see more in these D-Lab classes on OCW:

The D-Lab program website has lots of great content, with the latest news and blogs and videos by students about their projects and learning experiences.