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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.