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A New Era

- By Margaret Loftus    


Glenn Ellis's "Continuum Mechanics I" course at Smith College isn't your standard statics and dynamics class. Sure, students learn about these things through their case study of the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, but they also discuss the social implications of the quake, the city's preparedness, and its response in the aftermath. "You learn better when you learn in context," says Ellis, "For students to be effective engineers, they need to understand how what they do affects society."

Ellis's contextual approach is typical of Smith's Picker Engineering Program's learner-centered philosophy. Developed three years ago, the program is modeled on the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology's (ABET) Engineering Criteria (EC) 2000—which focuses on measuring what students have learned and retained as opposed to what professors should be teaching them.

Such flexibility allows Picker—the only engineering program in the U.S. at a women's college—to teach in a way that makes engineering appealing to more women. "I don't think we would have been able to do it if ABET hadn't changed their criteria," says Domenico Grasso, Picker's founding director. Ellis, a visiting professor of engineering education, adds, "[EC 2000] encourages good teaching, which benefits everybody, but particularly women."

Indeed, the program now boasts students who never considered majoring in engineering before arriving at Smith. And while closing the gender gap was never a goal of EC 2000, Picker's success begs the question: Will EC 2000 attract more women to engineering?

Sue Rosser, dean of the liberal arts college at Georgia Institute of Technology, was eager to find out for herself. As a social scientist who has studied women in science and engineering for 30 years, Rosser had mapped out 20 pedagogical criteria for attracting and retaining more women in science back in 1990. Her recommendations include using methods from a variety of fields for problem solving and discussing practical uses of scientific discoveries. When EC 2000 came out, it seemed only natural to compare them to her criteria. "I could see there was potentially a lot of overlap," she says. "The things that were emphasized such as collaboration and social usefulness have all been shown to be particularly attractive to women in engineering."



So point by point, Rosser examined how each of her ideas gelled with ABET's Criterion 3—the section she identifies as potentially having the most dramatic impact on engineering curricula. What Rosser found was hopeful. Several of the criteria overlapped, she wrote in Women's Studies Quarterly in 2001. Perhaps most striking in both criteria was the call for social relevance to scientific problems. Here, she points to two outcomes in ABET's Criterion 3: "an ability to design a system, component, or process to meet desired need" and "the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global and societal context." For women, notes Rosser, seeing the social benefits of technology is "overwhelmingly important." Research has shown that girls can solve an engineering problem as quickly as boys when it is imbedded in a social context. One of the things that women are looking for when they are evaluating careers is the ways to make a difference, says Picker's Grasso. He points to the large numbers of women going to medical school. "The criteria to get into med school aren't that different from engineering. But it's because they see a social relevance there."

Some engineering programs, including Grasso's, are working to change that. "The idea of technology for the sake of technology that I see flaunted in many aspects of society is foreign to our program," says Picker junior Cara Stepp, "We understand that the goal of engineering and technology is to help people." At Worchester Polytechnic Institute, for example, juniors are sent around the globe to work on team projects from cleaning landfills in Denmark to helping Thai children recycle. "For men there doesn't need to be a means to the end but women want to see there is an end to the means," says Stephanie Blaisdell, director of WPI's diversity and women's programs, "Women want to know why the question is important."

Such projects are examples of the teamwork approach Rosser says is important to women. Indeed, EC 2000 calls for students to show an ability to function on multidisciplinary teams. Women thrive in a collaborative approach to problem-solving says Rosser. Grouping students with different interests and backgrounds together to solve a problem nurtures the interpersonal skills critical to success in industry. "If someone comes out of school with perfect knowledge of engineering but has no ability to communicate with non-engineers, then success is unlikely," says Sherra Kerns, a member of the faculty and senior administrative team at Olin College of Engineering, as well as ASEE's representative to ABET. "Even if they've figured out how to purify the world's water supply, a lot of things need to happen to bring that to fruition."

Indeed, many of Picker junior Stepp's projects are completed in assigned groups—whether she likes it or not. "This allows us to learn how to work with people who have different abilities, ideas, and goals—something that is hard to do but essential for our development," she says. At Penn State, students can expand this experience by taking the Leadership Development minor, which addresses many of the new criteria by stressing communications skills, team skills, and management styles and practices. So far, says Barbara Bogue, the school's director of Women in Engineering, the curriculum has been attracting women in disproportionate numbers.

To be sure, the mere existence of Criterion 3 won't result in engineering programs being inundated with women. In fact, some critics question any link between the two. "I think if you find any evidence that there is a direct—or any—relationship between EC 2000 and increased enrollment and/or retention of women, it would be serendipitous," says Gloria Rogers, vice president for institutional research, planning, and assessment at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and frequent consultant for ABET. Rosser concedes that engineering schools may interpret the new criteria in such a way that wouldn't make their programs more female friendly. For example, she says, they may define the multi-disciplinary teams as white men who have backgrounds in different disciplines within engineering. There's no question that's the case in some programs, says Grasso, "There are schools that have fully embraced the philosophy and there are others that have decided to repackage the same way they've been doing things for years."

After all, it's this flexibility that is the hallmark of the new criteria. Schools can determine their own outcomes and goals. Hence, only when a program decides to integrate attracting more women as a priority can EC 2000 help close the gender gap. "The mandates of Criteria 2000 can help to improve the overall environment and climate for women," says Bogue, "but only if a goal of achieving gender equity is integrated into objectives and outcomes." In her conclusion, Georgia Tech's Rosser acknowledges that the devil is in the details, "It depends very much on how the criteria are interpreted." At the very least, she notes that none of the criteria run counter to making engineering more female friendly.

" Now all we have to do is get the word out that there is a new day in engineering and it's not just a boring forced march," says Olin's Kerns. "The field still involves discipline and a lot of knowledge but we now have the opportunity to let that come in a more lively form through projects, teamwork, and communication."


Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in St. Michael's, Md.
She can be reached at