In 1983, women made up 17 percent of university freshmen engineering students, but that percentage has declined steadily since then and is now down to 15 percent, a NASA engineer says.

"Women are losing out again and I don't know why," Kathleen Harer told the Deseret News.She was in Salt Lake City to keynote a conference for junior and senior high girls sponsored by the Utah Math/Science Network.

She said the Society of Women Engineers, of which she is a past national president, is concerned about the decline in female representation in engineering classes and is strengthening its career guidance efforts.

Saturday's program was an example. In its 10th year in Utah, the conference attracted 600 girls and about 100 parents, teachers and counselors. Some 60 Utah professional women conducted workshops in their science, math and engineering specialties.

One presenter, State Geologist Genevieve Atwood, was thrilled at the growing number of girls attending.

"It seems to me they don't feel quite as strange coming." In the early years some appeared self-conscious, she said.

One who came this year was Kristin Sheffield, a ninth-grader at Highland High School. She's interested in architecture. The architecture workshop was full, though, so she was going to one session on mathematical cages and graph theory and another on computer simulations.

Sheffield said many young people think science and math are boring.

Harer told the audience that's because few people understand the amazing variety of jobs in those areas. The only options they see in school are teaching and research.

She said the current environment is good for women seeking math, science and engineering jobs, although barriers still exist.

Speaking of the Kennedy Space Center where she works, she said, "There are glass ceilings there, especially in the technical areas. . . . We're still waiting to see the first woman engineering vice president. There are plenty of marketing vice presidents and accounting vice presidents."

Preparation is crucial, she said, recalling going from an all-girl liberal arts high school to the University of Washington's aeronautical engineering program.

"I went from being an honors student to somebody who couldn't even make a 2-point average the first quarter."

She lacked needed background. One college counselor told her after several months she was so far behind she would never catch up.

But after taking a dreary job at Boeing for a while, she returned to school, realizing she wanted more out of life and there was no rule that she had to learn at the same rate as other people.

She eventually completed degrees in aeronautical engineering, industrial engineering and business administration.

Harer stressed to the girls in the audience: "Don't let anybody stop you from doing what you want to do. Don't let anybody channel you to an area where you don't feel comfortable."