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How to reengineer an engineering major at a women's college

A Smith College professor's program may provide a pattern for how to attract and keep women engineers.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 2008

Rapt: Smith College student Salma Mehter (standing) listens as Prof. Glenn Ellis (l.), explains a computer-generated graph during a voluntary class. Dr. Ellis has been recognized for his research involving teaching techniques.

Joanne Ciccarello – staff

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Northampton, Mass.

The story is legendary: Glenn Ellis arrives at his engineering class dressed as a mountain climber. He hooks a rope to the ceiling, projects snow-capped scenery on the wall, and asks a volunteer to join him in a mock ascent.

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It's not an exaggeration to say that at moments like these, students hang on Professor Ellis's every word.

His continuum mechanics class had been studying the case of a major hotel walkway that collapsed in 1981. By discussing materials and structures from a climber's perspective, he not only made the lesson fun, but he also "masterfully illustrated the underlying concept of what went wrong ... in a completely different context," says Prof. Borjana Mikic. She has known Ellis since they arrived in 2001 to create the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College here.

The first women's college to offer an engineering degree, Smith is forging new paths in a field that's eager to swell its ranks in the United States. Women receive only 20 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering, according to a new report by the National Science Board (NSB). Like a handful of other liberal arts colleges, Smith is producing graduates who've had a different type of engineering education – one that goes beyond technical training to focus on a broader context for finding solutions to humanity's problems; one that emphasizes ethics and communication; one so flexible that about half the students study abroad, which is rare, despite the multinational nature of many engineering jobs.

Ellis is known for his intense commitment to understanding how people learn and for pushing himself and his colleagues to apply those lessons. Now that he's been named one of the US Professors of the Year, he can shout his message from the mountaintop. Ellis received the $5,000 award in November from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.

"It is just not good enough to teach the way that we were taught," he said during the award ceremony in Washington. "We know that doing so in engineering will surely exclude many of the young people we need to attract." Much research in recent years points to the idea that the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math, known collectively as STEM, is crying out for improvement. "It needs to become ... much more hands-on, much more learner-­centered," says Mary Moriarty, a researcher hired by Smith to conduct a two-year assessment of the Picker program. Yet the field has been slow to change, she says. The NSB report says that 83 percent of professors still use lecture and discussion as their primary methods in undergraduate classes.

Smith's program boasts a 90 percent retention rate and high participation of underrepresented minorities. Ms. Moriarty hopes to find out which elements of the experience at Smith most contribute to students' success. Female role models play a part (6 out of 10 engineering faculty here are women), but she says other factors are likely to be more important: "I think the methods being used here could probably translate very easily to other institutions that aren't all women," she says.