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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

Dr. Glen 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.

Four cheers for science

In 2007, all four U.S. Professors of the Year represented the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. (One winner is chosen from each of four categories: community colleges; baccalaureate colleges; master's universities and colleges; and doctoral/research universities.)

The STEM sweep wasn't intentional, but it may reflect a widespread effort to improve teaching in those fields, says Mary Taylor Huber, a senior scholar who convenes the final judging panel at The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Stanford, Calif.

"The sciences have been known to lose many of the young people who come into college interested in the sciences.... Many women drop out, [and] minorities," she says. "So the NSF [National Science Foundation] has put a great deal of effort into funding innovative work in curriculum and pedagogy in all of the STEM fields."

To learn more about Smith College engineering professor Glenn Ellis and the other three winners, and to watch videos of their acceptance speeches, see and click on "2007 winners."