Engineering 100: No men allowed
Leaning over a mass of plastic Lego blocks, Raleigh Todman struggles to attach a small electric motor to a Lego arm on her robotic cat-treat dispenser.Skip to next paragraph
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The goal is for a cat to follow this programmable robot - dubbed Pavlov - as it drags around a mouse toy. When the cat grabs the mouse, a sensor connected by string to the mouse stops the machine - and if all goes well, the electric motor raises the robotic arm and dispenses a treat.
It's pretty standard stuff for a first-year engineering course - except for the fact that the students, tapping at computers and tinkering on the floor in the lab, are all women.
This is the first semester of Engineering 100: Designing Intelligent Robots - the first-ever engineering program at any US women's college. Nine two-student teams at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., are trying to make their robotic visions - from bread-buttering machines to robotic dogs - a reality.
Leyla Khamjani, Ms. Todman's partner, lends advice as Todman lowers the arm into position to be snapped into place. Suddenly, the arm mechanism falls off - as does a large chunk of the rear of the machine. Ms. Khamjani slumps in her chair. "This class can be very emotional," she mutters.
Smith and other women's colleges have always had students with an engineering bent. But before this, Smithees like Todman and Khamjani were able only to minor in engineering, forced to drive to the nearby University of Massachusetts, or Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., for their courses. Now Smith women will be able to earn a BS in engineering, with the first class to do so graduating in 2004.
Despite an oversupply of engineering schools, Smith is diving into the field in response to growing interest by women - and a national shortage of engineers in many hot fields like computer and electrical engineering.
Undergraduate engineering enrollment has declined nationwide, yet women and minority enrollment grew in the 1990s, the National Science Foundation reports. Nevertheless, only 9 percent of the engineering workforce are women, compared with 50 percent of the college population - something that's got to change, says Ruth Simmons, Smith College's new president.
"Here we are, a whole generation after the women's movement, and roughly 5 out of 6 engineering students and 9 out of 10 engineering professors are male," she says. "Engineers design and build much of the human environment. Women must not accept so marginal a role in so important a field."
Another key reason Smith is involved, officials here say, is that they believe the school's all-women academic environment will encourage a higher "persistence rate" for women than traditional, mostly male programs.
"We feel we can really make a difference in encouraging women to consider making engineering their profession," says Doreen Weinberg, a physics professor co-teaching the robotics class.
She recalls a student who transferred to Smith from a co-ed liberal arts college on the West Coast. She was interested in physics and couldn't believe the difference.
At Smith, everybody in the lab groups did everything - unlike her prior experience as the only female in a physics class, where "it was understood the guys would do everything and she was just going to take notes," Dr. Weinberg says.
Watching closely as Smith's new project gets under way is the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, a branch of the National Research Council, a nonprofit organization that advises government on policy.