Written by Joe Gardyasz
Sarah Rajala (pronounced RYE-ah-lah) has opened new doors for female engineers throughout her career. She continues to blaze trails for women and minorities at Iowa State University, where she became dean of the College of Engineering last year. Four decades ago, she became the third woman ever to earn an electrical engineering degree from Michigan Technological University. She later became the first female tenured engineering professor at North Carolina State University. After distinguishing herself as a professor and center director, she moved into leadership roles at North Carolina State and later Mississippi State University. An internationally known academic leader, Rajala chairs the Global Engineering Deans Council and is a former president of the American Society for Engineering Education.
How unusual was it to be a woman engineering professor when you started out? How have things changed?
It was quite a bit different then. I was the only female engineering student in my class and only the third female to graduate (from Michigan Tech with an electrical engineering degree). When I went on to my faculty position, it wasn’t unusual that there weren’t any female engineering students. Nationally, now there are about 19 percent women in engineering undergraduate programs. What I’m very proud of is that at Iowa State (College of Engineering), we’re at about 20 percent women faculty, and 38 percent of our department heads within the College of Engineering are women, which is very encouraging.
How do you view ISU’s efforts to encourage women and minorities in engineering?
We’re doing quite well. We certainly have a very welcoming and supportive community for all students when they get here, and that’s important for all groups that aren’t well represented. We have K-12 groups to let parents and students know about opportunities, and activities like the Lego League event that was just held. A lot of what we do is partner with folks around the campus such as the APEX (Academic Program for EXcellence). … That program is particularly targeted to women and underrepresented groups. Going forward, one of the things I would like to see us spend more time on is that families are more educated about opportunities available.
How would you describe the College of Engineering’s competitiveness?
I’m quite satisfied. There are many measures one can look at. In enrollment, we’re in the top 10 in the country – 8,284 students in engineering, with about 7,000 of those undergraduate. So it is a very large program, and projections are that it will continue to grow. There is high demand for our graduates, and I think that’s because of the quality of our programs.
Are students entering the program well-prepared generally?
I think overall the students are well-prepared; there are some gaps. Part of it has to do with expectations – are they ready for calculus-based physics and chemistry? The more students we can have ready for these courses, the more successful they’ll be in completing their college career in four years. So it’s not that if they’re not ready or they can’t start the program, but they need to take some preparatory courses.
What are your top priorities for the college?
If we can increase the number of faculty we have, and increase the level of scholarship of our faculty, there will be additional international recognition. That’s important to be continued to be recognized in the top 25, and that’s a very competitive group. One of the things related to this growth is that we are pretty squeezed in our infrastructure. So we have to define a path for more infrastructure, and we need to partner with private industry to grow.
What about the field might people find surprising?
Many of the companies that hire our graduates are multinational, so they have to be prepared to live and work abroad. Even if they’re starting their employment in Iowa, they aren’t necessarily just Iowa-based companies.
What kinds of things does an engineering dean do for fun?
Both (my husband) Jim and I enjoy traveling to warmer climates where we can snorkel. But we also enjoy snow skiing, which we did over the holidays. One thing we have adopted here, we’ve become Cyclone sports fans – both basketball and football – so we’ve enjoyed that.