Trailblazer: Charmane Caldwell engineers a career she loves
A successful researcher, Charmane Caldwell now focuses on recruiting and retaining diverse students for the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering.
From an early age, Caldwell became interested in electrical engineering. Procrastination on a science project as child lead her to build a telephone transmitter out of household materials, sealing her fate.
"I asked my mom, 'did I ever want to become anything else?' she said I've always wanted be an engineer," smiled Caldwell.
According to the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) in 2011, the year Caldwell graduated with her Ph.D, roughly 1,030 students graduated with a Ph.D in electrical engineering nationwide, approximately 170 were women, less than 20 of which were Black or African-American.
Passionate about diversity and inclusion in engineering, Caldwell manages efforts to develop and implements diversity and inclusion strategies and programs in the areas of outreach to prospective undergraduate, graduate students, and faculty; fostering a culture of inclusion within the college; and establishing college policies and procedures supporting diversity in the college. Her mission is to increase the representation of women and minorities in both the student body and among the faculty.
The FAMU-FSU College of Engineering is unique. It is the only College of Engineering in the country connecting a Historically Black College and University and a predominately white institution. Caldwell believes schools nationwide are successful in sparking an interest in students in the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, however, students may still enter college unprepared for success in STEM programs.
During her time in graduate school, Caldwell began working with Nims Middle School science teachers to bring in speakers or hands-on engineering-based activities to reinforce lessons they were taught in class and encourage a love for the field.
While Caldwell was in graduate school, an FSU staff member pitched a high school engineering competition to Caldwell. Since Caldwell was involved with Nims Middle School, she advocated for her younger students to be allowed to compete against the high school teams. After announcing the opportunity to several classes at Nims Middle School, she was stunned by the results.
"It was amazing, the students that were interested in the competition were the girls," radiated Dr. Caldwell about her eighth-grade class.
Though they did not place in the second-round competition in Atlanta the local eighth-graders placed in the first round of the regional competition in New Orleans, against high school teams.
"Coming up with programs to make students successful in the environment that they are in is my focus."
When Caldwell first started in her role as the first Director of Diversity and Inclusion at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, the engineering retention rate for FAMU students in their first year was 49 percent. Fifty-one percent of students left after their first year. Committed to helping to improve retention, Caldwell now leads two student support programs: Engineering Concepts Institute, and the Engineering Living Learning Community. The first year retention rate for students that participate in one of these programs is 85 percent and grade point averages have seen an increase as well.
Each year in March, as part of Women's History Month, The Oasis Center for Women & Girls recognizes local women who have rewritten history by blazing trails. Trailblazers are honored for the barriers they have crossed and glass ceilings they have shattered, paving the way where few women had been before them and creating opportunities for other women to follow. Dr. Charmane Caldwell is being recognized as a 2017 Trailblazer.
Regarding her trailblazing work in a field where women, and especially black women, are dramatically underrepresented, Caldwell considers it just another day at the office. "This is my regular day-to-day," said the engineer, who recounted numerous times peers would avoid asking her questions assuming she did not understand or know the answers.
"One thing I love about math and science, one plus one will always be two," laughed Caldwell.
She loves "Hidden Figures," the story of Katherine Johnson, a female African-American mathematician who calculated trajectories for space missions. Caldwell admires the generation of strong and driven women in her family.
Even with opposition from professors and peers, Caldwell pressed forward, "There was nowhere else to go. Electrical Engineering is what I wanted to do and I was not going to let anyone get in my way."