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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.

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Ellis has done much to shape those methods. He draws on his experience teaching high school physics to bring the fun factor into his classes, for one. He has students use motion-graphing sensors to gain a deeper understanding of functions and derivatives, key building blocks in calculus. In a January math-skills class, six first- and second-year students came alive using these tools. It was a rare teaching appearance for him this year, as he's taking his first sabbatical in a 20-year career.

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He encouraged the diverse group to "play around" as they graphed how their distance from the sensor changed over short bursts of time. Anna Lorenz amused the class as she tried a moonwalk to keep her line as straight as possible. "That's a Smith first!" Ellis declared gleefully.

For 2-1/2 hours the young women worked through problems in pairs as Ellis circulated, raising questions and at times folding his tall frame into a squat so he'd be eye to eye with seated students. His encouraging comments – "That's beautiful!" in response to a graph – lightened the mood.

At the end of class, he told first-year student Salma Mehter, "We want people like you in engineering." She had mentioned she was considering majoring in it, and agreed this class made her more confident.

Coach more, lecture less

When he first arrived at Smith, Ellis had to break some habits he'd formed as a student and professor in the crucible of more-traditional engineering.

"I did some things that were horribly wrong in terms of education methods," he says with the laughter of hindsight. "I would cold-call on students.... Everywhere else I'd been, no one ever called me intimidating ... but I got feedback from my [Smith] students saying my class was scary."

Current students wouldn't believe it. Consulting with a scholar in Smith's education department, Ellis discovered ways to approach classes differently: to let students work in groups and wait longer for responses to his questions; to coach more and lecture less. To make the goals of the class explicit and have students discover key concepts on their own. To assure them that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process.

The whole faculty discusses teaching methods regularly. "It's a real community feeling here," Ellis says, "and we know from the research that's absolutely critical for retaining women in engineering."

Briana Tomboulian, a senior and an occasional teaching assistant for Ellis, says the collaborative approach has worked well for her. She's leaning toward accepting a job at an environmental engineering company with a similar culture.

Ellis is the best teacher she's ever had, she says. "His classes are so welcoming and supportive.... No matter what it is, he can talk about it in such an enthusiastic way that you want to learn.... And he will explain something 100 times without getting frustrated, until you understand it."

Ellis received a teaching award at Smith last spring, but he says winning the national prize "was an absolute shock." Both came with $5,000, and he spent the first prize on a backhoe because he loves digging in the dirt. But he feels a large responsibility attached to the national award: "It's a challenge to me to do my job better."