Initiative changes image of engineer

October 20, 2000

The all-female Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts, has launched a unique engineering programme designed to attract women to the subject and change the way engineers are taught, writes Jon Marcus in Boston.

The self-contained engineering major has just one professor and 19 students. At full capacity, it is projected to produce just 25 graduates a year.

John Connolly, provost and dean of the faculty, said: "The world would be different in all kinds of ways if there were more women in this profession."

Students will also study literature, history, social science, natural science, analytic philosophy, a foreign language and fine arts.

Domenico Grasso, who turned down a department chair at Columbia University to become the founding head of the programme at Smith, said: "The way we've done engineering in the past is a disservice to engineers in particular and society in general.

"Engineers have not been properly qualified to deal with the issues that are asked of them. It would be so nice to have bright well-rounded engineers out there."

The experience of women in the field indicates that they are discouraged from considering careers in engineering.

"When I was growing up, I didn't hear my teacher telling me 'you can do this'," said Emerson Taylor, one of the students on the course. "I didn't have any female role models."

Kamalea Cott, another student, said that in maths and science classes in high school, "I would be confused somewhere along the way, I'd ask a question and they wouldn't hear me."

Women have made enormous gains in other science disciplines in the US - for example, they comprise three-quarters of psychology majors and half of biology majors. But they make up just 17 per cent of undergraduate degrees in engineering and just 9 per cent of practising engineers in the US.

Other universities and colleges are also reaching out to women.

The National Science Foundation has allocated $2 million (Pounds 1.38 million) in grants to increase women's participation in technology fields.

Pennsylvania State University invites Girl Scout troops to its campus for hands-on engineering activities. Other engineering schools are starting women's programmes, from a Lego camp for girls run by Tufts University to the "House of the Future" interactive model at the University of Cincinnati College of Engineering, which also sponsors "take apart the toaster" days for female school pupils.

But in some engineering fields, the gender gap is widening.

The proportion of computer science degrees awarded to women has fallen from 37 per cent in 1984 to 16 per cent, yet there are 400,000 vacancies in the information technology sector, a figure expected to rise to1 million by 2003.

Filling jobs is not the only role of the new programmes. There is a push to train engineers in communication skills. Accrediting agencies are giving greater weight to liberal arts. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology requires that graduates from engineering programmes are knowledgeable in such things as teamwork.

Maryann Weiss, spokeswoman for the board, said: "Industry was telling us 'your graduates aren't coming to us prepared for work'."

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