Kanysa Bartsch knew she was entering a male-dominated department at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology when she enrolled to study mechanical engineering, but it didn’t really sink in until she looked around her first class and realized she actually was the only woman in the room.

“It was an adjustment,” said the mechanical engineering major who plans to graduate in 2014.

Bartsch’s transition into a world of mostly men is a process School of Mines officials hope to make easier for future women, especially as the number of female students in that particular department reached a record number this year.

Nationwide, female enrollment in mechanical engineering programs is low, with a rate of about 15 percent. The School of Mines has been even lower. Just two years ago, the rate was 5 percent.

The numbers, however, have slowly increased since 2010, with 29 students in 2010, 35 in 2011 and 41 this year — a rate of 8 percent. They are expecting 500 students to enroll in the program this year, also a record.

University officials expect that some of the increase in women is due to an aggressive marketing campaign that includes commercials and videos featuring the Hardrocker Formula race car being driven around the Needles Highway.

The vehicle stops and a young woman gets out, flips her hair, stares into the camera with a grin and says: “Mechanical engineering at the School of Mines is not just for guys.”

But it was probably more than a YouTube video that attracted an unprecedented number of women to the department this year, said Lisa Carlson, associate director of recruitment and graduate programs in the mechanical engineering department.

Through the National Science Foundation, female mechanical engineering students have also been offered hefty scholarships — up to $5,000 the first year, renewable for another three years. The department also has hired its first female faculty member.

But it’s more than simply getting women into department that’s a challenge — it’s keeping them.

“Mechanical engineering is an incredibly tough field to get women to stay in,” Carlson said.

After tracking the retention rates of the students, Carlson found that many women start in the department and transfer to other departments by the year’s end.

“I think they’re feeling isolated,” she said.

To help curb that, the university will start a mentoring program this year that will pair underclass women in the department with upperclass women. The women will meet once a month, and all of them will be invited to get together for professional development activities, including hearing from female professionals in the mechanical engineering field.

“It’s important for women to be able to relate to other women,” Carlson said. “I think our women students feel alienated when confronted with 450 men. Hopefully, this will dispel that.”

Lyndsey Penfield thinks it will. The mechanical engineering major will graduate next year and she’s looking forward to be becoming a mentor.

“I knew that there were less women,” she said. “But in my upper-level classes, within a (mechanical engineering) class of 30 people that would only include two women, that was a bit extreme for me.”

She took the initiative to join organizations on campus and made friends with women in other departments, she said, but a mentoring program will “help me with my self-esteem and make me not feel so lonely.”

She knew of many female students who started in the ME department and switched to industrial or civil engineering, which have higher percentages of women.

“I look forward to becoming a mentor so I can help keep some of the women in ME,” she said.

Both Penfield and Bartsch agree that there is something unique and attractive about the mechanical engineering field.

Bartsch entered the field because she “wanted the knowledge and understanding of how things work.”

“I was told it was one of the broadest fields,” she said.

And when it comes to finding jobs and internships, there’s an advantage to being one of a few.

“They have specific jobs they want women for,” she said. “They want a different perspective.”

She also made connections with other women outside her department — primarily through playing volleyball.

“I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had that connection,” she said.

In class, “guys talk guy talk,” she said, which can include sexist jokes.

“They don’t mean anything by it,” she said. “And the older they get, the better they get.”

And then there’s the obvious issue of dating, she said.

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“No matter who you are or what you look like, you will get hit on your freshman year,” she said, laughing. “By the time you’re a junior, they realize, ‘she’s not playing that game.’”

Despite the challenges, she has no regrets.

“It’s a great campus to be on,” she said.

Penfield is also glad she made the decision to stick it out.

An interest in airplanes led her to mechanical engineering. Shoes have also played a part. After graduating, she hopes to attend fashion school to learn more about the mechanics of shoe design — a move she hopes could land her at a company like Nike.

Carlson likes the way the women think outside the box. At the heart of the challenge of recruiting and retaining women in ME is that the field has masculine aspects to it, Carlson said.

“They think it’s a mechanic’s job,” she said.

In truth, mechanical engineering graduates go on to work for a wide variety of companies and do a variety of jobs.

“They can work with Caterpillar, or farm equipment; they can drive a race car,” she said. Or, she said, they can work in biomedical engineering and design to make hip replacement parts and prosthesis. Another popular line of work is sustainable and green energy.

“You can go a lot of places with it,” she said.

Penfield hopes that’s exactly what this year’s incoming freshman realize — first that being one of a few isn’t such a bad thing.

“I think it can be a good thing,” she said. “It takes so much more development, social skills and inner strength to be a minority.”

And lastly, that women should pursue whatever degree they want. The uptick in the number of women in mechanical engineering is a positive sign of that.

“I think it’s great that’s where we’re headed,” she said. “It’s about time these changes start happening. … I hope they find things they love within mechanical engineering and can really follow their dreams.”

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Opinion page editor

Opinion editor for the Rapid City Journal.