Engineering 100: No men allowed

Leaning over a mass of plastic Lego blocks, Raleigh Todman struggles to attach a small electric motor to a Lego arm on her robotic cat-treat dispenser.

The goal is for a cat to follow this programmable robot - dubbed Pavlov - as it drags around a mouse toy. When the cat grabs the mouse, a sensor connected by string to the mouse stops the machine - and if all goes well, the electric motor raises the robotic arm and dispenses a treat.

It's pretty standard stuff for a first-year engineering course - except for the fact that the students, tapping at computers and tinkering on the floor in the lab, are all women.

This is the first semester of Engineering 100: Designing Intelligent Robots - the first-ever engineering program at any US women's college. Nine two-student teams at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., are trying to make their robotic visions - from bread-buttering machines to robotic dogs - a reality.

Leyla Khamjani, Ms. Todman's partner, lends advice as Todman lowers the arm into position to be snapped into place. Suddenly, the arm mechanism falls off - as does a large chunk of the rear of the machine. Ms. Khamjani slumps in her chair. "This class can be very emotional," she mutters.

Smith and other women's colleges have always had students with an engineering bent. But before this, Smithees like Todman and Khamjani were able only to minor in engineering, forced to drive to the nearby University of Massachusetts, or Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., for their courses. Now Smith women will be able to earn a BS in engineering, with the first class to do so graduating in 2004.

Despite an oversupply of engineering schools, Smith is diving into the field in response to growing interest by women - and a national shortage of engineers in many hot fields like computer and electrical engineering.

Undergraduate engineering enrollment has declined nationwide, yet women and minority enrollment grew in the 1990s, the National Science Foundation reports. Nevertheless, only 9 percent of the engineering workforce are women, compared with 50 percent of the college population - something that's got to change, says Ruth Simmons, Smith College's new president.

"Here we are, a whole generation after the women's movement, and roughly 5 out of 6 engineering students and 9 out of 10 engineering professors are male," she says. "Engineers design and build much of the human environment. Women must not accept so marginal a role in so important a field."

Another key reason Smith is involved, officials here say, is that they believe the school's all-women academic environment will encourage a higher "persistence rate" for women than traditional, mostly male programs.

"We feel we can really make a difference in encouraging women to consider making engineering their profession," says Doreen Weinberg, a physics professor co-teaching the robotics class.

She recalls a student who transferred to Smith from a co-ed liberal arts college on the West Coast. She was interested in physics and couldn't believe the difference.

At Smith, everybody in the lab groups did everything - unlike her prior experience as the only female in a physics class, where "it was understood the guys would do everything and she was just going to take notes," Dr. Weinberg says.

Watching closely as Smith's new project gets under way is the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, a branch of the National Research Council, a nonprofit organization that advises government on policy.

"We view Smith's approach as a great idea," says Victoria Friedensen, director of Diversity in Engineering Workforce for the NAE. "Women today are switching out of engineering at higher rates than men even though their grades are higher. So they're not flunking out - they're not dumb."

Rather, she says, the reason is that "the academic climate is chilly." There's just not the same sort of "embedded social support white males enjoy," she says. "That will be different in the Smith program."

Engineering education is also traditionally oriented toward male patterns of learning. Ms. Friedensen cites studies that show women learn better in team or network environments. Men, by contrast, learn in a more "linear fashion" and don't seem to need interaction as much. Also, women are not typically as aggressively competitive, she says.

Alice Cassidy could not agree more on both points. As a 1985 physics graduate of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., a women's college and nearby Smith rival, she had to attend a university to earn a B.S. in engineering. She's since worked at United Technologies, General Electric, and Motorola.

"It was intimidating going into an all-men academic environment," she admits. "I went from a nurturing women's college to a university where I was one of 12 women among 360 electrical-engineering students."

She survived - and thrived. But it would have been far better, Ms. Cassidy says, if she had been able to earn her BS in engineering in a women's-college environment that embodied teamwork rather than at a university with cutthroat competition.

Domenico Grasso, the new chairman of Smith's engineering program, who recently headed the engineering school at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, has an eye on all of these issues.

"Women are typically the better students," he says of his experience at UConn. "However, they are also the quieter students. And it's very difficult to get them to speak up. I think that will be different at Smith. There's a strong sense of self-confidence that's pervasive."

Dr. Grasso turned down an attractive job offer to head Columbia University's engineering school in New York, because he thought by starting with a new program at Smith he could help change the face of engineering.

"What I would like to see created is an atmosphere where the engineering women are broadly educated, well-rounded, and become leaders not only in the engineering field but society in general," he says. "These women are going to become role models for other girls looking for careers."

He admits that's a few steps down the road for the nine teams of undergraduate women back in the engineering lab. There, during a Thursday-evening lab session, Weinberg lends advice when needed.

Most learning, she says, happens as students figure out what will and won't work as they build their own robots. And right now they're learning a lot about what won't work.

"It's got a motor in there, and it wants to pull things apart," declares Anne Mathisen of the robotic pirate ship she and Becky Segal are building.

"This class has been all about design," she adds. "Our biggest challenge was when we made it too heavy and had to do a full redesign."

She looks up as Ms. Segal returns with a boarding plank for the ship. In a mock test of the system -which either fires on an enemy ship, or lowers the plank - the moment of truth comes: The ship's catapult is held in abeyance when a peaceful signal is sent, and the boarding plank shoots out.

"Partner," Ms. Mathisen says, "that is beautiful."

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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