Domenico Grasso, the new head of Smith College's fledgling engineering program, is an environmental engineer with a mind to change the world.
In a recent interview, he explained that he turned down a job offer from New York's Columbia University to come to Smith because he wanted to be part of something new that would change the way engineers approach their work.
"We can change not just the complexion of engineering, but the future of society," he says. "Even though their numbers are going to be somewhat small, the character of the graduate here is going to be quite unique."
While there are fewer women than men in engineering today in the United States, there's no reason that it has to remain that way, Professor Grasso believes.
"That shortage of women in engineering is characteristic of the US - but it's not male-dominated worldwide. That goes to societal issues in the US. It's not a biologically based gender issue. It's not that women can't do it. They do it all the time in Russia and Europe. In the US for some reason, there's a societal bias that dissuades young girls from seeking careers in technological fields."
Grasso says he was especially drawn to Smith's new program because he could mold it along interdisciplinary lines, integrating the humanities into engineering in a way that would create a well-rounded engineering graduate.
"It's very difficult to do this type of curriculum reform at established programs because those programs, the faculty there, have tended to try to protect the courses they've developed. Here at Smith, what I envision is an intimate interweaving of the humanities and engineering.... It's not just technology, math, science. We want to convey the idea that there is an ultimate reason for doing this that is in essence serving humanity.
"This is not present at all in most engineering curricula," he says. "They teach math, mass transfer, heat transfer, continuum mechanics - they teach these courses, and at the end, they may say, 'OK, there's some society or ethical issues we have to retrofit - or at the beginning -but it's lost in the overall picture.
"I'd like to have this as an organic part of the curriculum, ... a sense of social responsibility and conscience that our graduates have ingrained in them - and [the feeling] that this is the role of technology in society."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society