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Women in Engineering and the Human Spirit

By Domenico Grasso

“The campus of Smith College is one of the most pleasant places in the world to be on a sunny afternoon. The setting is so lovely, the academic atmosphere so tranquil, that when I first arrived here, I was totally captivated. The spell of the place, however, made me uneasy about my mission, which was to convince a few of the students at this premier, all-female liberal arts college to become engineers. The mission, as it turned out, was destined to fail.”

So began an article by Samuel Florman, “The Existential Pleasures of Engineering,” in Harper's magazine in 1978. Nationally, the interest of women in engineering has not improved significantly since then. Only one percent of college graduates are women who have studied engineering. Only 20 percent of all undergraduate engineering majors are women. And only six percent of engineering professors are women.

Although forecasts of engineer demand for the future are somewhat uncertain (and some even question the need to educate more engineers), it is certain that our engineering workforce needs more diversity. In contrast with medicine and law, the engineering profession remains "pale and male," with white men making up 90 percent of practicing engineers.

Greater diversity would help, for example, to overcome the bad-driver syndrome. Let me explain: Not so many years ago, women were accused, stereotypically, of being bad drivers. Why? Because cars were designed by men, for men, indeed, for your average 5-foot-10-inch man. Women, who are usually shorter, often could not see the four corners of the car from the driver’s seat, possibly contributing to countless fender-benders. This commonplace example illustrates how some diversity at the design table might help avoid bad and even dangerous designs.

The quest for greater diversity in engineering explains why in 1999, on the same bucolic campus described in the pages of Harper’s 21 years earlier, the faculty voted to establish the first and only engineering program at a women’s college. They were proving Sophia Smith (founder of Smith College), absolutely right when she said in 1870 that the college will have curricula "as coming times demand for the education of women and the progress of the race." Educating women in engineering is surely a case in point.

Today Smith, located in Northampton, Massachusetts, boasts a student body consisting of nearly five percent engineering majors. Five of the nine engineering faculty are women. And in May of this year, Smith graduated the first engineering class in U.S. history composed entirely of women.

Many of these women will go on to join the ranks of the engineering workforce, bringing with them an array of concerns and insights their male counterparts might lack. Of course, some of these women, as Florman bemoaned back in 1978, will not choose to become engineers, for a variety of reasons. My colleagues and I at Smith are convinced that an engineering education will serve a woman well no matter what path she chooses in life. And it will also serve society. If information is the currency of democracy, informed thought and intelligent decision-making must be the currency of a sustainable civilization.

Engineers at Smith learn that decisions must be tempered by an element often lacking in the education of engineers: the human spirit. Their education reflects the admonition of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, who believed that technology should not be "an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both."

At Smith, we define engineering as the application of mathematics and science to serve humanity. This definition necessarily requires that our graduates appreciate the human condition. Our program is noted for the same quantitative rigor as those at leading universities but is also distinguished by the way our students fuse Pirsig's "nature and the human spirit." In the education of Smith engineers, the study of the humanities and social sciences is just as important as the study of the physical sciences and mathematics. A sense of social relevance and social responsibility pervades the entire engineering curriculum.

But how can we teach these students everything they need to know in just four years? By handing out a lot of homework? Probably not. Instead, the faculty tries to help students hone their critical thinking using techniques usually associated with study in the liberal arts and through structured problem solving, typically associated with an engineering education. In this way, we provide students with the tools and the desire to be continuous learners. Thus, long after their detailed recollections of the Navier-Stokes equation and the Pieta have faded, Smith engineering graduates will retain an ability to think critically and learn more about a subject on their own.

We feel that the more exposure students have to various ways of thinking, the better equipped they will be to succeed. So, rather than forcing them to pick one specialty from a smorgasbord of engineering degree programs, we offer a single degree, a B.S. in Engineering Science, which focuses on the fundamentals of all the engineering disciplines. With rigorous study in the three basic areas of mechanics, electrical systems, and thermochemical processes, students learn to apply principles and structure engineering solutions to a variety of problems. Complementing this technical rigor, our faculty expects the students' work will be informed by the diversity of thought acquired from their classes in the humanities and social sciences.

In short, the engineering program at Smith is designed to diversify the ranks of America's engineering professionals -- and of those who sit at the highest levels of government and corporate America -- in intellect as well as gender.

Domenico Grasso is Rosemary Bradford Hewlett Professor and Founding Director of the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College. He also serves as vice-chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board and as editor-in-chief of Environmental Engineering Science.

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