Hundreds of prominent women working in science, technology, engineering and math will become online mentors for college students next month, part of a six-week program to encourage young women to pursue careers in STEM fields.
"I think of this as a MOOC -- a massive open online course -- and a big mentor-fest," said Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College and a sponsor of the project. "Getting more women into STEM is my passion in life, and every institution that's set up mentorship programs for young women has been successful at increasing their numbers, so I think this can make a real difference."
The program has no curriculum, no exam, no grades and no credit -- just a goal of connecting young students with accomplished women working in STEM fields. Prominent universities -- including the California Institute of Technology, Cornell, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley -- have been quick to sign on, contributing mentors and publicizing the program to students.
"I thought this was a great idea as soon as I heard about it," said Dennis Berkey, the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. "Young women in STEM, more than young men, have a lot of questions about what kind of career they'll have, whether the rewards are based on performance or the old boys' network, whether it'll let them make a positive impact on the world, and how it will relate to their aspirations for family."
While women now earn more college degrees than men over all, they lag in STEM fields -- particularly computer science and engineering, where they earn less than 20 percent of all undergraduate degrees.
To help raise those numbers, Dr. Klawe has lined up six prominent women as lead mentors, including Mae C. Jemison, the first black female astronaut; Jacqueline K. Barton, the chairwoman of the chemistry department at Caltech; and Padmasree Warrior, Cisco's chief technology officer -- as well as nearly 300 other mentors. They will answer questions submitted online by students at any of the universities participating in the project, which is known as Women in Technology Sharing Online, or WitsOn.
Undergraduates at other colleges can participate by getting a faculty member to nominate them. Although the program is especially designed for women, men will also be able to ask questions.
According to the Web site, the project could even lead to jobs. "We will do our best to connect students who are interested in positions with mentors' organizations that have positions to fill," it says.
A test forum in May attracted more than 800 questions in a day, according to Pooja Sankar, the founder of Piazza, a WitsOn sponsor. Young women had a wide range of queries: "How sexist is programming?" "How did you get where you are?" "Do you have time for your family?" "When is it right to correct misunderstandings about women in technology fields and when do you have to just let it slide?" And, inevitably, "Can I work for you?"
Ms. Sankar, who went to engineering school in India, said that given her own awkward experiences in school, she had long wanted to offer support to female students.
"I was embarrassed to look at a boy, much less ask a question about homework," Ms. Sankar said. "I didn't have a support group, and I thought it was because I was growing up in a traditional society. What was such a surprise, when I was at Facebook and Sheryl Sandberg had a session for women engineers, was that American girls, even if they'd gone to coed high schools, felt the same sense of isolation."
Jacqueline El-Sayed, a professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University, said WitsOn could help bolster the confidence of women who think differently from their male classmates -- giving answers that are correct but unexpected, and in response getting what some call "the look."
WitsOn's somewhat unstructured approach is in some ways similar to the earliest massive online courses, created years before Harvard, M.I.T., Stanford and other leading universities started offering free online versions of their traditional campus classes. Like WitsOn, the first MOOCs were meant to help form connections online rather than provide a formal curriculum. The participants shaped the content, often interacting in so many different online threads that no student or teacher could follow all of them.
"In a connectivist MOOC, people get out of it what they put into it," said Stephen Downes of the National Research Council of Canada, a pioneer of the early MOOCs. "It's something like a Yahoo group or other interest-based community. But it has a start date and an end date, and it pulls people out of different networks and plops them into a new one, which results in new connections and gets people hearing new voices."
WitsOn is not the only connectivist MOOC starting this fall. Athabasca University in Alberta -- along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Educause, a nonprofit organization focused on information technology; The Chronicle of Higher Education; and others -- will present one called Current/Future State of Higher Education.
Empire State College, a division of SUNY, will offer VizMath, which Carol Yaeger, a leader, said would be about "the visualness of math -- things like math in art, Escher's work, and exploring hyperbolic curves through knitting." Participants will have the option of taking the class for credit at Empire State.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.