Engineering 100: No men allowed
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"We view Smith's approach as a great idea," says Victoria Friedensen, director of Diversity in Engineering Workforce for the NAE. "Women today are switching out of engineering at higher rates than men even though their grades are higher. So they're not flunking out - they're not dumb."Skip to next paragraph
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Rather, she says, the reason is that "the academic climate is chilly." There's just not the same sort of "embedded social support white males enjoy," she says. "That will be different in the Smith program."
Engineering education is also traditionally oriented toward male patterns of learning. Ms. Friedensen cites studies that show women learn better in team or network environments. Men, by contrast, learn in a more "linear fashion" and don't seem to need interaction as much. Also, women are not typically as aggressively competitive, she says.
Alice Cassidy could not agree more on both points. As a 1985 physics graduate of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., a women's college and nearby Smith rival, she had to attend a university to earn a B.S. in engineering. She's since worked at United Technologies, General Electric, and Motorola.
"It was intimidating going into an all-men academic environment," she admits. "I went from a nurturing women's college to a university where I was one of 12 women among 360 electrical-engineering students."
She survived - and thrived. But it would have been far better, Ms. Cassidy says, if she had been able to earn her BS in engineering in a women's-college environment that embodied teamwork rather than at a university with cutthroat competition.
Domenico Grasso, the new chairman of Smith's engineering program, who recently headed the engineering school at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, has an eye on all of these issues.
"Women are typically the better students," he says of his experience at UConn. "However, they are also the quieter students. And it's very difficult to get them to speak up. I think that will be different at Smith. There's a strong sense of self-confidence that's pervasive."
Dr. Grasso turned down an attractive job offer to head Columbia University's engineering school in New York, because he thought by starting with a new program at Smith he could help change the face of engineering.
"What I would like to see created is an atmosphere where the engineering women are broadly educated, well-rounded, and become leaders not only in the engineering field but society in general," he says. "These women are going to become role models for other girls looking for careers."
He admits that's a few steps down the road for the nine teams of undergraduate women back in the engineering lab. There, during a Thursday-evening lab session, Weinberg lends advice when needed.
Most learning, she says, happens as students figure out what will and won't work as they build their own robots. And right now they're learning a lot about what won't work.
"It's got a motor in there, and it wants to pull things apart," declares Anne Mathisen of the robotic pirate ship she and Becky Segal are building.
"This class has been all about design," she adds. "Our biggest challenge was when we made it too heavy and had to do a full redesign."
She looks up as Ms. Segal returns with a boarding plank for the ship. In a mock test of the system -which either fires on an enemy ship, or lowers the plank - the moment of truth comes: The ship's catapult is held in abeyance when a peaceful signal is sent, and the boarding plank shoots out.
"Partner," Ms. Mathisen says, "that is beautiful."
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