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Engineering programs around the country are watching keenly to see how well Smith College succeeds in educating women engineers. Deans and administrators from engineering schools at MIT, RPI, West Point, Princeton, Duke, Michigan, Massachusetts and Texas participated with others in "Designing the Future," a conference on engineering education held at Smith March 29-31. They expressed optimism that the college's new Picker Program in Engineering and Technology will demonstrate effective strategies for attracting and retaining women and other underrepresented groups in a field historically dominated by white men. Smith is the only women's college, and one of a handful of liberal arts colleges, to offer an engineering degree.

Unlike law, medicine, and business, the engineering profession has failed to attract significant numbers of women and minorities, said Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Ten years of effort to bolster participation of underrepresented groups in engineering, mathematics, and science has not produced the results hoped for, said University of Colorado sociologist Elaine Seymour. On a similar note, National Science Foundation director Rita Colwell warned, "We're not making the kind of progress we need to change the composition of the science and engineering workforce," noting it's still predominantly 'pale and male.'" Although several panelists reported that women now comprise as much as one-third of the enrollment in their universities' undergraduate engineering programs, women nationally make up only 17 percent of engineering undergraduates, about 9 percent of the professional engineering workforce and an even smaller fraction of engineering faculty members.

Conference participants noted that, despite its relatively small size, the all-women Smith program can be expected to have a far-reaching impact on engineering education and the culture of the engineering profession. Smith seeks to broaden engineering education and to develop a blueprint for training liberal arts engineers, said the college's president, Ruth J. Simmons. With 20 students enrolled in its first class, the college does not expect to make a significant numeric impact on the profession's gender disparity, nor to make up for the acute shortage of engineers in industry in the short term. But the program may go far in diversifying the engineering curriculum, as well as its culture and climate.

A more demographically and educationally diverse workforce will expand the range of needs, design options and engineering solutions addressed by the profession, said William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering. He said he looks to Smith's liberal arts tradition to enhance the creative potential of its engineering students. Too many engineers have been narrowly trained, rather than broadly educated, added John Slaughter, president of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. To be well educated, engineers must study "Bach and botany, Isaiah and isotopes," he urged.

Currently, women who persist in engineering -- finishing degrees, joining engineering faculties and obtaining work in industry -- often find themselves marginalized in their profession, said Thomas Magnanti, dean of MIT's school of engineering. Even though women currently comprise 34 percent of MIT's freshman engineering class, recruitment and retention of women students and faculty members remains as difficult there as everywhere, he said. The problems are the same in industry, according to mechanical engineer Rose Mary Farenden, global recruitment director at Ford Motor Company, who looks to Smith's Picker Program as a "new way of teaching engineering" that will produce engineers "who have the passion to make the world a better place." Farenden was instrumental in getting Ford to commit a total of $12.5 million to the Smith program. Ford president and CEO Jacques Nasser pledged $10 million at the conference's start on March 29, to be used to help build a state-of-the-art engineering facility at the college. The company had previously committed $2.5 million for scholarships, laboratory equipment and other infrastructure to help get the nascent program running.

The Picker Program's founding director, Domenico Grasso, said he wants to produce engineers who are creative thinkers, seeing "the big picture" and recognizing that engineering models are simplifications of reality that often leave out societal costs. Grounded in the liberal arts, graduates of the new program, he expects, will "bridge the rift between the humanities and engineering, in order to help ensure a sustainable future." He noted that the program's measure of success will be the quality of the students it educates. Beyond being competent engineers, the young women are expected to be role models and leaders, skilled in communication and human relations. If, along the way, they help change the public perception of engineers as narrow, dull and unimaginative, this will be an important bonus for a profession struggling with its image.

At "Designing the Future," the stereotypical pocket protectors and white socks were nowhere to be seen, and undergraduates happily observed that this engineering conference was unusual in having lines in the women's restrooms. Nor were women's narratives squelched, as has occurred on other engineering panels, according to Smith President Simmons. She challenged the profession to change its culture "so women feel more validated in their personal histories." Smith alumna Sabina Nawaz, director of management and leadership development groups at Microsoft, recounted to participants how her childhood desire to become an engineer grew out of a struggle for personal independence. NASA astronaut Bonnie Dunbar recalled that her high school physics teacher encouraged her to choose engineering at a time when she thought all engineers ran trains.

An audience ranging from engineering educators to first-year engineering students showered panelists with more "how-to" questions than could be answered in the time allotted. White-haired Smith alumnae who majored in science before the second World War, the female dean of all-women Effat College in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (which plans to add an engineering program), and even the traditionally skeptical engineers present joined together for the weekend to applaud Smith's experiment in educational innovation and diversity and to encourage similarly pioneering programs at other institutions.

The conference received financial support and had representatives present from a broad range of U.S. companies interested in promoting diversity in their own workforces. In addition to Ford, these included Boeing, Cisco Systems, GE, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Pfizer and United Technologies.

Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 50 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's college in the country.

More information about the conference and photos can be found at or about the Picker Program in Engineering and Technology at

Contact: Laurie Fenlason,

April 4, 2001


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