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Future Smith Engineers' "TOYTech" Project Kicks Off Jan. 23 When Middle Schoolers and Teachers Arrive for Unusual Brainstorming Session

Editor's note: The Jan. 23 innovation workshop will be run as a Thinking EnvironmentTM according to the principles outlined in the book "Time to Think: Listening To Ignite The Human Mind" by Nancy Kline. Journalists are welcome to attend ­ but only if they agree to participate! For more information, contact Laurie Fenlason at (413) 585-2190 or

A key principle in engineering is not only designing things well but understanding the needs of the people who will use them.

Students in Smith College's new engineering program -- the first engineering program at a women's college -- are absorbing this principle from the outset, thanks to a project called "TOYTech" and a "catalyst" known as the Institute for Women in Technology (IWT).

IWT, a Silicon Valley-based organization founded by computer scientist Anita Borg and dedicated to engaging women in the creation of new technology, has selected the college as one of its development centers.

One of just six such centers around the country, Smith's is the only one at a women's or liberal arts college. Collectively, the centers (the others are located at Texas A&M, Purdue, the University of Arizona, the University of Colorado and Santa Clara University) comprise IWT's Virtual Development Center or VDC. The VDC is a collaborative, nationwide network of development centers where design solutions and prototypes are developed based on input from people from diverse backgrounds and people whose input has not typically been sought in product development.

For its inaugural project, Smith's development center will tackle a perennial challenge: the development of technology-based toys that appeal to girls and boys alike. Known as TOYTech (for "Teaching Our Youth Technology"), the project kicks off at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 23, in Theater 14 of the college's Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts.

Some 80 participants ­ including 20 students from the Chestnut Middle School in Springfield, Mass., 20 sixth-graders from the Smith College Campus School, eight students from the Children's Museum in Holyoke, Mass., and 20 Smith College engineering students ­ will spend the day in an intensive, highly directed brainstorming session led by IWT Executive Director Sara Hart.
Using a methodology known as Thinking EnvironmentTM, an innovative model of interaction used by leading organizations and based on the premise that everything we do depends for its quality on the thinking we do first, participants will start by considering the toys they wished they had had as young children. To foster the best quality of thinking, emphasis will be placed throughout the day on giving every participant opportunities to speak without interruption and for the group as a whole to reflect substantively on all ideas generated. Everyone present will be required to participate, and elements of hierarchy ­ age, seniority, position, gender ­ will be eliminated as much as possible.

Following the workshop, Smith students in "Engineering 100" will, over the course of the semester, take forward the group's ideas, developing concepts, models and prototypes and testing them at various points along the way with the younger students and teachers.

In their work, they will be supported by $250,000 worth of equipment ­ including scientific calculators, digital cameras, CD writers, printers, notebook PCs and computer workstations ­ donated by Hewlett-Packard Corporation through its alliance with IWT's VDC project. Other corporate supporters of the VDC include Xerox, Sun Microsystems, Compaq Computers and IBM.

In late April, the students will travel to San Francisco to present their project at IWT's annual VDC conference. TOYTech will constitute the Smith students' major design project for the first year, for which they will be evaluated at the end of the spring semester.

IWT, based in Palo Alto, Calif., is a leader in the creation of technology that involves and serves women. Its mission is to increase the impact of women on technology, increase the positive impact of technology on the lives of women and help communities, industry, education and governments benefit from these increases.

The organization notes that women represent more than half of the students attending college, but constitute only 20 percent of the enrollment in engineering programs.

"Many women and girls believe a career in engineering or computing won't have a positive impact on the world and is therefore irrelevant to their lives," said Borg, the president of IWT. "Nothing could be farther from the truth.

"These fields will impact our personal, social, economic and political lives in the near and long-term future. To attract women into these fields, we must change the image of engineering and computing professionals and make their contributions to women's lives, families and communities evident," Borg emphasized.

Established in 1999, Smith's engineering program, known as the Picker Program in Engineering and Technology, is similarly dedicated to bridging the perceived divide between engineering and the humanistic concerns.
"It is essential that engineers appreciate and understand the human condition," noted Domenico Grasso, Rosemary Bradford Hewlett professor and chair of the Picker Program.
"A project such as TOYTech," he explained, "effectively models how that understanding develops, through listening and communicating, and how it informs the engineering design process from initial problem identification right through to blueprints and production."

An integral component of Smith's program, Grasso added, is a continuous emphasis on the hands-on use of engineering science principles in design. Before graduating, every Smith engineering student will complete a significant final design project that incorporates broad-based societal considerations.

Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's best liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 50 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's college in the United States.

Contact: Laurie Fenlason,, (413) 585-2190

January 16, 2001


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