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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 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."

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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."

Linda Jones, director of the Picker program, says the national award also affirmed the college was right to take the risks it did in launching the engineering degree. She recalls the Provost wiping away tears during the award presentation, a symbol of the hard work – and heart and soul – that people poured into the effort.

Another signal that they're on the right track is feedback from employers. During a visit to a Ford plant, an engineer came off the plant floor to talk with Ms. Jones. She was a Smith grad who had been pulled out of a mandatory writing class for new employees after the first day and asked to facilitate it instead.

An early start for engineers

Ellis offers an education course at Smith to prepare people to teach math and science at the K-12 level and he conducts workshops for teachers. "If you care about getting women in engineering, you had better go to the high school, middle school, and elementary level," he says.

He and a colleague are working on a fiction book that will be packaged with preengineering activities for middle-schoolers. It features an eighth-grade girl who faces an ethical dilemma similar to one that her mother, an engineer, is experiencing at work. Students who get hooked into the story will have a chance to learn the basics of computer-aided design by drafting a bedroom setup; they'll explore artificial intelligence through conversations with "chatterbots" – computer programs that imitate human conversation.

Smith students serve as his research assistants. "I have zero chance of relating to a middle-school girl," Ellis says, perhaps too modestly.

His "creative team" of students brought in a bunch of teen-girl magazines. "We're trying to take all the evil ways of luring girls into these idiotic things, and lure them into engineering," he says with a subversive grin.

The power of community

If they end up being lured into a place that's as supportive as Smith seems to be, they are more likely to stay with it.

Ellis recalls many conversations in a student lounge adjacent to his previous office. That's how he learned to stop giving tests where the average was expected to be a 40 (a time-honored tradition in engineering), because students who scored way above the average would nevertheless cry because they felt they did poorly. That's also where he witnessed the power of community.

"They were so tight," Ellis says. "If a student was considering leaving the program, her classmates would be like, 'Hey, we need you; we love you; you can't go!' "

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."