By Anna Mulrine
Stepp is trying to figure out what
she's going to tell the seniors
at Smith College's Picker
Engineering Program when she returns
for a visit in a couple of months.
She wants to give them a pep talk—she's
sure about that—and tell them
how prepared they are for the world
outside of Smith's gates.
The only problem is that Stepp secretly
suspects that the class of 2005
might not need her encouragement:
Less than one year after she and
19 of her fellow students became
the first class of engineers to
graduate from a women's college,
engineering has become the third-most-popular
major among incoming students at
Smith. The program has garnered
plenty of national recognition,
too, in a country where 4 out of
5 engineering students—and
fully 90 percent of engineering
For her part, Stepp knew she wanted
to be a part of the program the
moment she heard about it some five
years ago now. "I went to
Smith specifically for the program,
for all of the things the program
represents—because it was
a liberal arts school, because it
was the first engineering program
at a women's school, and because
we were the first class,"
she says. "I didn't
just happen into it." Throughout
most of her years at Smith, she
had the same sense of purpose, convinced
she would become an environmental
engineer. But when she worked on
a project taking measurements of
the middle ear just before her senior
year, she became hooked on bioscience
and neuroengineering. It was an
unexpected eleventh-hour epiphany
about the sort of work she truly
wanted to do. "I was so lucky
I was at Smith," recalls Stepp.
"If I was at another school,
there would have been no way that
I could have had such a huge turnaround."
Stepp is now a first-year graduate
student in the joint Harvard-Massachusetts
Institute of Technology division
of health science and technology,
where she is studying speech, hearing,
biosciences, and technology. This
summer, she will begin putting her
classes in speech communication
and the neural coding of sound into
practice, working in a voice clinic
laboratory that is pioneering the
creation of an electro larynx. Right
now, explains Stepp, cancer patients
who have their vocal chords removed
are given "buzzers,"
which they hold in front of their
necks with their thumbs. "They
can talk, but they sound like robots,"
she says. "It's very
one-pitch, very mechanical, and
it's not ideal—plus
they're always using one hand
to hold it there." The lab
is working on a new model that picks
up nerve signals and uses them to
control pitch, "so someone
without vocal chords could produce
a voice that contains pitch inflection."
The person wouldn't have to
hold it at the neck to turn it on
Stepp's work, like that of
her graduating class, lies at the
heart of the Picker program's
primary aim of "turning out
students who see engineering as
a way to enhance the human condition
and the human spirit," says
program founder Domenico Grasso,
now the dean of the College of Engineering
and Mathematics at the University
of Vermont. In shaping the program,
the creators wanted the liberal
arts to be seamlessly interwoven
into the fabric of the curriculum's
technical rigor. "The way
we define engineering," explains
Grasso, "is the application
of engineering to serve humanity."
And that, he says, is where the
liberal arts come in. "If
you don't understand the human
condition—what people need
and desire—then it's
very hard to design for them."
Why, he wonders, "do people
travel all the way to Italy to see
the Pieta? The reason people do
that should be considered when we
do designs. Engineering finds a
natural home in the liberal arts.
What it means to be liberally educated
now is different from what it meant
a century ago."
Degree, Many Paths
Today, true to the spirit of the
engineering program itself, each
of the graduates has followed her
own path. They have now gone on
to construction management companies,
financial consulting firms, and
graduate school. Some are traveling
in China and studying the martial
arts, others are planning weddings
and making cameo appearances in
punk rock bands. They are also grappling
with what it means to be a woman
in the engineering world, particularly
on the heels of Harvard University
President Lawrence Summer's
controversial comments earlier this
year about possible reasons—among
them "innate" differences
between men and women—that
might explain the lack of women
in the highest echelons of science
Becky Silverstein, graduating from
Smith meant having the support not
to pursue an engineering career—at
least not right away. Silverstein
was a latecomer to the engineering
class of 2004. She didn't
declare her major "until the
very last minute," when she
realized that though she liked math
and physics, she didn't love
them. What she loved was her introductory
design course, an entry-level class
for potential Smith engineers, in
which students work with local classrooms
to design educational toys. Had
she started with a class like quantum
mechanics, Silverstein says, "It
would have been really easy to lose
track of what engineering is, what
design is—and what helping
people is. It really sets the tone
for your time at Smith."
And just as the introductory design
course sets the tone for Smith engineering
students at the beginning of their
studies, the eight-credit Design
Clinic pulls it all together for
seniors, says Susannah Howe, the
clinic's director. Not only
do students design projects that
incorporate engineering economics,
sustainability, and thermodynamics,
for example, but they also learn
vital "soft skills."
Through discussions and alumni who
serve as public speakers, Picker
students get pointers in everything
from networking to public speaking
to how to grab someone's attention,
Howe says. The clinic also addresses
"balancing work and life,"
she adds, "and being women
in a very male-dominated field."
Indeed, it is these less tangible
dynamics that constitute one of
the class's biggest learning
experiences as seniors.
"The teams of four work together
closely the entire year,"
explains Howe. "And many of
them commented that if you have
bad team dynamics, you can get away
with that for one semester. But
when you're with a group for
one year, you work really hard to
fix it." Susan Strom, a Picker
class of 2004 grad, agrees. "If
you would have asked me what the
biggest design clinic challenge
was last year, I would have said,
hands down, it's the electrical
engineering coursework. But in retrospect,
it was the interpersonal relationships
where I learned the most."
Silverstein agrees. When the town
of Northhampton hit a budget crunch—and
needed to cut transportation costs—her
design clinic team worked with the
Department of Public Works to propose,
plan, and build a sidewalk. Silverstein
and her teammates presented the
idea to the community, learned about
the legalities of the municipal
process, and helped in "actually
laying down the sidewalk line,"
says Silverstein. "Not to
pat myself on the back, but we did
a good job." She particularly
enjoyed afternoons when "we
would walk into the back of the
public works offices, and the guys
would laugh and give us a hard time,"
she says. They met the people who
were doing municipal engineering
and were taken out into the field
to learn how to survey. "I
think they were kind of glad to
have a bunch of young women—young
people, anyway—giving them
a hard time," says Silverstein.
"And for them to be able to
teach us surveying and things like
that—it must have been cool
for them, too, or at least I like
to think that."
One of the greatest learning experiences,
she says, was figuring out how to
break down their workload—in
other words, she says, "getting
the scope of the project, and what
you need to do to get there."
Silverstein recalls one group meeting
in particular, when her team "was
brainstorming all of these tasks
on to Post-its. We were moving these
Post-its around, tearing them up,
and creating new tasks." They
were discussing and debating "all
of the steps involved, what our
role was, and where we were going
to need help." So the task,
says Silverstein, became not just
"design a sidewalk."
"It was learn a computer program,
input all of our current sidewalk
data, research different materials,
learn how to do a cost analysis."
Silverstein says that these are
skills that she uses today in her
job as a geometry and pre-calculus
teacher at Marblewood School in
Connecticut. "Just in the
organization of solving problems,
I tell my students, ‘List
the assumptions you're going
to make, the equations you're
going to use.'" Silverstein
has taught her students to put their
theorems on flashcards, which they
now move around in much the same
way Silverstein shuffled her Post-its
In the months since she has graduated,
Susan Strom has found herself using
the skills she learned in her design
clinic in her new position with
a construction management company.
Shortly before she earned her diploma,
Strom considered joining the Peace
Corps. She also briefly mulled a
career in financial management and
interviewed with one of NASA's
big subcontractors for a mission
control job on a Mars project.
But while the NASA work was more
in line with what she was doing
as an undergraduate, she had concerns
about the recent budget cuts in
the Mars program in order to provide
funding for the international space
station. Then she interviewed with
Gilbane, based in Providence, R.I.
"I really enjoyed the corporate
culture. I didn't know if
I wanted to build buildings,"
she says, "but I definitely
knew I wanted to learn how."
Now Strom takes plans as they come
in from architects, works with the
project management and design teams
to determine costs, and reads blueprints.
Learning how to do that, she says,
"was very educational—a
little tedious, but I feel very
good about being able to understand
what a building is going to look
Strom's job, however, has
not been without its frustrations
in the past year. When she arrived
at her new company, she found that
her work "was not as challenging,
and the projects weren't mine."
She decided she had "to take
a step back and be humble."
But her role as her senior design
team leader taught her persistence,
she says. Later, she approached
supervisors in the company to ask
them about how she might participate
in sustainable development projects.
The answer, she says, was a bit
disappointing. "They told
me, ‘We don't do that
But gradually, once she had been
with the company about seven months,
she says, she began to get more
responsibility. And again, she went
to management. This time, she was
interested in organizing a peer
group. Through her time at Smith,
she "knew how to put a good
budget together and how to word
things to get people's approval."
Upper management was impressed.
"They were really excited
about it," Strom says. Since
then, she has worked with other
young leaders within the company
to organize a group trip to a steel
manufacturing site for a tour followed
by a cocktail hour. The group will
also volunteer at Water Fire, a
community arts events center in
Providence, and bring in a financial
consultant to discuss portfolio
management and early retirement.
"I had the chance to be innovative,
to change things, to make them better,"
says Strom. "And that's
when I feel like I have the greatest
job in the world."
Caitlyn Shea didn't quite
feel that way when she began her
life as a graduate engineering student
at the University of Notre Dame
last fall. Shea had, she says "a
bit of a rough first semester."
She started off in the chemical
engineering department, but when
she began searching for research
projects, nothing truly intrigued
her. "The projects I was seeing
were engineering for engineering's
sake, rather than engineering for
humanity," she says. "That
was fine, but it wasn't a
good fit for me." Coming from
Smith, she craved a humanities-based
project. She talked over her dilemma
with former Smith professors and
did some digging around her school.
Ultimately she found the project
she was searching for, in the civil
engineering department. Now she
is working with biosensors that
can detect contaminants. "There
are a ton of applications,"
says Shea. "In sewer systems,
in contaminated ground water, in
large bodies of water." It
integrates two of Shea's major
projects from her senior year—her
design clinic in which she designed
a biological nitrogen removal reactor;
and her honors thesis, in which
she investigated the oxidation of
silicon wafers—in other words,
she explains, how the pretreatment
of surfaces was affecting its imperfections.
Taugher is doing exactly what she
hoped she would: Working at an environmental
consulting firm. She concentrated
in chemical engineering at Smith,
and now, she says, she has the creative
liberty she hoped she would have.
"I get to work on a lot of
projects, with a lot of clients.
I'm not just stuck in the
office," she says. She helps
to draw up spill-prevention plans
and works on issues of general compliance.
"I'll go out to a site
and say, ‘OK, let's
take a walk around and see that
everything's in order, that
things are labeled.' "
When she was interviewing, she
says, her new bosses were interested
in the work she had done at Smith,
her senior design project that involved
using organisms to treat water.
Not only did her experience impress
her bosses, but her design team
continues to help her in her current
job. "I called a teammate
the other day to ask if we could
talk about this one thing we worked
on that I couldn't quite remember."
"I was wondering, ‘How
did we figure it out? Oh, I think
we did this?' " These
sorts of informal consultations,
the Smith graduates say, have proved
invaluable to them in their first
year out of school—and the
bonds they formed have sustained
them. Shea recalls E-mailing a classmate
when she derived an equation that
she had previously taken at face
value. "I was like, ‘Guess
what I just did today?' It
was very cool."
For many of the students, the Picker
program's liberal arts components
have influenced them both inside
and outside the classroom, often
in ways they never expected. For
Shea, it is a way to decompress.
She plays bass in a punk rock band
during guest appearances in her
old stomping grounds of Northhampton.
She also reads—for fun. "I
was having this conversation with
one of my classmates. I was reading
a book that wasn't nonfiction,
it wasn't a textbook. And
he said, ‘Wow, I think you're
the first person I've seen
in a long time who is reading something
for fun,' " recalls
Shea. "For me, though, humanities
has become a huge part of what I
define engineering as."
Silverstein uses the humanities
in her classroom. In pre-calculus
class, she encourages students to
give classroom presentations on
boomerangs, Kepler, and planetary
orbits, too. "For me, engineering
wasn't all about learning
equations. It was also about recognizing
that we're more than just
engineers. It was about presentation
skills, communication skills, and
learning how to speak at least somewhat
eloquently about science."
Christine Johnson minored in philosophy
and loaded up on courses in classical
mythology while she was in the Picker
program. Today, she is working in
public finance for a company that
does consulting for municipal clients.
She makes plans for cities that
are struggling with crisis and debt
and helps fund public projects like
stadiums. "The first interview
I had, they asked me, ‘This
looks great—why don't
you want to be an engineer?'
And I said, ‘Well, I wouldn't
consider this not engineering.'
I think it is the same sort of skills."
And it is this wide swath of skills
that has served Smith graduates
in such good stead. As Johnson explains,
"You get to see so many connections
that I think most people who study
engineering at larger schools might
not get to see because they don't
do much beyond engineering after
their first year."
This is not the case with Stepp
and Strom, who will meet up with
some local student branches of the
Society of Women Engineers next
week. They are regional leadership
coaches, helping undergraduates
to organize committee meetings and
task forces to "keep up vitality"
in student sections. Stepp and Strom
help plan fundraisers, presentations,
and seminars. They are also hoping
to pass along some of the skills
they learned at Smith. Their next
event will focus on "teamwork,
group dynamics, that sort of thing,"
Stepp says. She wants to give back
to the community that gave so much
to her—and to help it grow.
As women engineers, "We still
have a long way to go," she
Indeed, Stepp has grappled with
discrimination and its implications.
Though as one of three women in
a program of eight, she says, she
doesn't feel a part of any
particular minority. She has, however,
had co-op experiences where she
and the secretary were the only
women in the office. "I felt
fine, but that doesn't mean
it's a good thing."
Many of the women are frankly uncertain
whether they have experienced discrimination—indeed,
it is often difficult to know whether
they have been discriminated against
as, they note, blatant examples
are rare, and discrimination, when
it does exist, is often unconscious.
One pointed to a recent Slate magazine
column by Meghan O'Rourke
about Lawrence Summers' comments
on women and engineering. It cited
the work of M.A. Paludi and W.D.
Bauer, who conducted a study in
which 180 men and 180 women were
asked to grade a paper on a 5-point
scale. "When the author was
‘John T. McKay' rather
than ‘Joan T. McKay,'
the men on average graded the paper
a point higher—and the women
scoring the test weren't much
more egalitarian," the article
Indeed, when Harvard University
President Lawrence Summers'
controversial comments surfaced
earlier this year, in which he cited,
to explain the lack of women at
the highest levels of science—three
possibilities as to why men outnumber
women in descending order of importance:
The possibility that women are often
unwilling or unable to work 80-hour
work weeks; "innate"
differences between men and women;
and discrimination, many hoped the
comments had been "blown out
of proportion." As Shea said,
"It is disappointing to believe
that anyone can maintain those notions
today, especially the president
of such a prestigious educational
Discrimination can surface in subtle
ways and unexpected places, says
Shea. She recalls being at a fundraising
event with one of her peers. She
was being subtly excluded from the
conversation. It was "an eye
contact thing," she explains.
"We're at the same level,
talking with a subcontractor who
works with our company." When
her male colleague spoke, his comments
were treated thoughtfully, but when
she spoke the subcontractor glanced
in her direction, then continued
to ignore her. "There's
not a whole lot you can do about
it," says Shea.
Silverstein says that after Summers'
"sticking his foot in his
mouth," she has reached a
philosophical place. "If Summers,
or anyone else for that matter,
wants to think that men are innately
‘more suited' than women
to study math and science, I'm
not going to argue with that. What
is important is not that one gender
may be ‘better suited'
than another gender, but the notion
that two genders do have different
brains and do come at problems from
different perspectives. This idea
is not a harmful one at all; in
fact, different perspectives are
exactly what the engineering profession—and
science in general—needs,"
she says. "Engineering needs
people that think about engineering
with a broader range, a more sociological
one, a more economical one. Engineering
needs people who understand that
a building is the people who live
in it, how it will impact the surrounding
community, how it will impact the
environment. It my mind, it is not
a problem that men think they are
‘better' at math and
science—there will always
be people who think they are ‘better'—but
it is a problem if they think that
women don't have anything
valuable to contribute."
But as participation in Smith's
Picker program continues to increase—and
as other women's colleges
begin to create engineering programs
of their own—more women are
joining the field every day. And
their influence is growing. Silverstein
recalls being stopped in the hall
by a student's parent who
recognized her from the Smith alumni
magazine, impressed that one of
the Picker program graduates was
teaching her child. Forget for a
moment about whether men's
and women's brains work differently,
she says. There is no denying that
"engineering and science need
different ways of thinking. And
engineering in all its forms,"
she adds, "should not be without
Anna Mulrine is a freelance
writer based in Washington, D.C.