Citing both a pressing national need for women engineers and a commitment to providing significant new opportunities for its graduates, the Smith College Board of Trustees today approved a plan establishing the nation's first engineering program at a women's college.
The new Picker Program in Engineering and Technology is named for the late Jean Sovatkin Picker, a 1942 Smith graduate and former United Nations official, and her husband, Harvey Picker, a longtime Smith supporter whose $5 million gift has established an endowment for the program. Picker is chairman of the board of Wayfarer Marine Corporation and dean emeritus of the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Additional support for the program has been provided by Rosemary Bradford Hewlett, a 1940 Smith graduate, and the William R. Hewlett Trust.
Smith President Ruth J. Simmons characterized the new engineering program as "a bold venture but an important one for a forward-looking women's college."
"Women represent more than 50 percent of the college-going population but only 9 percent of the engineering work force," she observed. "Clearly, it's a matter of national import that our country not only produce more women engineers but also develop new, truly effective models for educating them."
A key issue, Smith Provost and Dean of the Faculty John Connolly explained, is that women nationwide who enter college interested in science often don't persist in science fields. Smith has countered this trend: its students graduate with science majors at two and a half times the national average for men and women combined. Thus, Connolly believes, "a student's chances of leaving Smith with an engineering degree are likely to be much greater than they would be at a university."
Serious consideration of an engineering program at Smith began during the college's decennial accreditation self-study, which took place in 1996-97. As those discussions intensified, Simmons noted, it became apparent that enthusiasm for an engineering program at the college was quite strong, not only among faculty and students but among engineering educators at other institutions, industry representatives, accrediting agencies, and alumnae.
"We have pursued this ambitious program because so many people have told us it would be an important step, not merely for Smith but for women and for our work force," Connolly said.
"We are galvanized by our supporters' faith that Smith will do engineering both differently and well, and will then share that knowledge with others.
"If today five out of six engineering students are male, even while medicine, law and business are approaching gender parity, then clearly there is great need for another educational paradigm," he added.
Under the direction of a founding chairperson, to be named in the coming months, the Picker program is likely to focus initially on three fields: computer engineering, electrical engineering, and environmental engineering. These fields build on existing faculty strength at the college in the areas of computer science, geology, physics, and environmental science.
The college will offer its first engineering course, "Designing the Future: An Introduction to Engineering," this fall. The first engineering majors are expected to graduate in 2004, receiving bachelor of science degrees in engineering. Once all program areas are established, the college expects to enroll 100 engineering majors at any one time, graduating approximately 25 women per year.
Career prospects for these graduates are expected to be strong. The National Science Foundation anticipates growth in engineering-related jobs during the coming decade at a rate three times higher than for jobs generally. A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics study predicts that the demand for computer engineers will more than double by 2006. Also predicted to be in high demand are electrical and electronic engineers, as well as engineering managers.
Regardless of their specialization, Simmons notes, some Smith engineers are likely to be fast-tracked within agencies and corporations because of the high demand for engineers with strong liberal arts skills, which include writing, speaking, and analytical thinking. (In addition to Smith, only two other top 25 liberal arts colleges--Swarthmore College and Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.--offer engineering degrees.)
The value of liberally educated engineers, who typically bring strong communication and abstract reasoning skills to their work, has recently been acknowledged by engineering-accrediting agencies, which have moved to give greater weight to the liberal arts in designing curricular standards.
Given the college's strong commitment to liberal arts, Simmons expects that Smith will produce "a steady stream of women engineers who enter the profession and rise to the top."
Some Smith students and alumnae have already had the opportunity to pursue engineering studies. Since 1985 the college has offered an engineering minor, with emphases in chemical, civil, computer, electrical, industrial and mechanical engineering and in operations research. Smith had an active dual degree program with the engineering college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst from 1976 to 1991 and discussions are under way to create a new collaboration between the two schools, which are consortial partners. In addition, since last year, the MacLean Program, a partnership with Dartmouth College, has enabled Smith students to earn both a bachelor of arts degree from Smith and a bachelor of engineering degree from Dartmouth in five years.
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.
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