Prism - September 2002
Engineering Their Way to the Top
A Quiet Sort of Revolutionary
Feeling The Pinch
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Voyage of Discovery

- By Erin Drenning and Alice Daniel

The SS Universe Explorer is a window to the world for hundreds of students each semester. This ship is a floating classroom for the popular and long-standing Semester at Sea (SAS) program run through the University of Pittsburgh for the past 21 years.

As a part of last spring's trip, 642 people from ages 18 to 92—seven of whom were engineering majors—went on a voyage of discovery from the Bahamas to Japan and nine countries in between. The itinerary included a 4 ½ hour audience with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, a visit to Mount Fuji, and a safari through South Africa. SAS offers more than 70 college courses each semester that relate in some way to the countries and cultures the students explore when they dock. While only two of these were cross-listed as engineering courses last spring—one on business ethics and the other on environmental management—a dean at the University of Pittsburgh's College of Engineering is working to change that.

Pitt's Larry Shuman acted as academic dean for the spring 2002 SAS voyage, and he wants to do everything possible to make this trip a reality for more engineering students. “The biggest problem is getting students from other universities,” he says, “because it's difficult to get engineering educators to recognize the importance and the value of it.” Too often, says Shuman, students are wary of taking the trip because they think that they'll have trouble getting credit for non-engineering courses at their home schools. And too often they're right.

“I decided to go on Semester at Sea before my freshman year,” says Dena Weitzman, a mechanical engineering junior at Purdue who went on the trip last spring. “When I made this choice, I knew I probably would not be able to transfer any engineering credits, but I still felt it the right decision. I wanted to do SAS so much, it was worth staying in school an extra semester if I needed to.”

Shuman is hopeful, however, that with new accreditation criteria, more courses like the eight business classes that were offered last spring could conceivably count toward an engineering education and not force students who choose SAS to stay in school longer.

At Penn State, computer engineering senior Caitlin Pierce was able to join SAS without adversely affecting her collegiate career. “I was not too worried about keeping up my requirements, because I saved enough credits to be able to take all general education classes on SAS,” she says. “I was also lucky in that most of my classes at Penn State are not semester specific, so a semester away did not hinder me too much. I am graduating a semester late, but it is more due to changing majors and picking up a minor than my trip with SAS.”

The potential scheduling snafu or an added semester is a small price to pay for the experience of a lifetime, as far as most SAS alumni—and Dean Shuman—are concerned. “I strongly encourage students to do this,” he says. “This is completely different from what they've ever been exposed to in their engineering programs, and I think it's a very valuable experience.”

“I would recommend Semester at Sea to all students, including engineers,” says Weitzman. “I hear complaints that engineers are not well rounded, and here's their chance. If I want to work within the world, shouldn't I have a better idea of what's out there?”

 

Graduates Get Personal

With the number of graduates in the thousands at many universities, parents resort to telephoto lenses and binoculars just to catch a glimpse of their son or daughter walking down the aisle in cap and gown.

But thanks to the innovative minds of two University of Pennsylvania engineering students, graduates will no longer have to use a roll of masking tape to slap “Hi Mom!” on their mortarboards. David Badler, Tyler Mullins, and Matt Uffalussy came up with a software program called MarchingOrder, piloted in 2001, which allows students to display personal information on a 25-by-65-foot screen when they reach for their diplomas.

Prior to graduation day, students can post such tidbits as hometown and degree type on the MarchingOrder Web site, along with personal photographs. Student are given a bar-coded card to be scanned when they get on stage, and the moment the student receives his or her diploma, the information he or she provided on the MarchingOrder Web site pops up on a screen facing the audience. Last spring, MarchingOrder was used at both Penn and the University of New Mexico's graduation ceremonies. Badler credits his father, an engineering professor at Penn, with inspiring the idea. “This lets students individualize their commencement,” says Badler. “(My father) thought that graduates deserve that kind of recognition on such a big day.”

 

Opening New Doors

Jennifer McDaniel grew up believing that only men became engineers. But then her paradigm changed.

At the urging of a high school teacher, she attended a national program called Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) that encourages young women to take courses—and to consider career options—in math and science.

“The program opened up opportunities I hadn't considered,” says McDaniel, who now works for Agere Systems in Orlando and co-chairs an annual EYH conference at the University of Central Florida. “If it wasn't for EYH, I would not have been an engineer, because the picture that's always been painted for me is that engineers are men,” she says. “Seeing women who were successful in a traditionally male-dominated field changed my outlook. If they could do it, so could I.”

McDaniel's “can do” response is what EYH ideally hopes for from all its participants. Considering its roots, that's not surprising. EYH was one of four intervention models created in the mid-1970s by the Math/Science Network, an Oakland, California-based organization that strives to increase the number of women in math- and science-related professions. The network was founded by women in industry who had few, if any, female peers and by math educators who saw few females in classes that weren't required.

“We began to license EYH out nationally in the early 1980s with the idea that people everywhere could do this and that women in math and science would be happy to volunteer,” says Betty Levitin, executive director of the Math/Science Network.

Today, more than 100 conferences are held annually in 30 states, usually at universities or colleges. To date, more than 525,000 students, mainly middle schoolers, have participated. The conferences, which are funded and planned locally, generally include a keynote speaker as well as various hands-on and informational workshops led by women scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Some conferences also offer workshops for parents that include discussions on financial aid and how to help a child study.

“The biggest supporters have been the women in the community who come and participate, the doctors, engineers, and professors,” says Lucy Morse, who started EYH at the University of Central Florida in 1984 after becoming the first woman there to get a Ph.D. in engineering. Major organizers of these conferences include the Society of Women Engineers, the American Association of University Women, and the Association for Women in Science.

But even in 2002, some young women still lack the encouragement to go into math or science, says Morse. “I still think there a lot of people who aren't convinced that women can go into those fields...We've got to get young women to take those courses so that if they decide to go into a math or science field at some point, they're not left behind.”

With that goal in mind, EYH is not only designed for students who are college-bound but also for students who may choose to practice a skilled trade or get a technical degree.

“I would hope that all of these young women would get at least a B.A., but I also know the reality of America in the 21st century,” says Levitin. “The more math they take, the better off they'll be, and the better the opportunity to advance in a job of any kind, even if it's the difference between a sales clerk and a manager. But I mostly want to hear about young people who become engineers.”

Elizabeth Wheeler is one such participant who became an engineer. She enthusiastically remembers her first encounter with EYH. After all, the keynote speaker was Sally Ride. “My impression of the program was that you could be a woman in science and not be a stereotypical geek,” says Wheeler, who received her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at Stanford and works at the Lawrence-Livermore National Lab in California. “I was bowled over by Sally Ride, that she would take time out of her busy schedule. She told us if we sent her a stamped envelope, she would send back an autographed picture. I still, to this day, have the picture.”

Wheeler, like other former participants, is giving back to the program that set her on her current path by volunteering. She co-chairs an EYH program in San Ramon, Calif. “I get so much enjoyment out of the hands-on workshops,” she says. “It reminds me again why science is fun.”

 

Erin Drenning is an associate editor for Prism.
She can be reached at e.drenning@asee.org.
Alice Daniel is a freelance writer in Fresno, Calif., and a journalism instructor at California State, Fresno.
She can be reached at adaniel@asee.org.

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