PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo SUMMER 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 9
features
THE REAL WORLD - Six Smith College grads recount their experiences during their first year as engineers. And they react to Harvard President Larry Summers' recent comments.  - As a first-year graduate student at the joint Harvard-MIT division of health science and technology, Cara Stepp credits the Picker  program for its flexibility. She didn't get hooked on bioscience and neuroengineering until her senior year. - Photography by Grant Delin

By Anna Mulrine

ON THE COVER: THE REAL WORLD - Six Smith College grads recount their experiences during their first year as engineers. And they react to Harvard President Larry Summers' recent comments. Cara 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 faculty—are male.

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 and off.

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."


One 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 and engineering.

For Becky Silverstein, graduating from Smith meant having the support not to pursue an engineering career—at least not right away. For 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 last year.


The Confidence Factor

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 like."

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 here.'"

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.

Meghan Taugher is doing exactly what she hoped she would: working at an environmental consulting firm.  Meghan 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."


What's Not Engineering?

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 says.

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 noted.

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 institution."

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 women's minds."

Smith's 2004 engineering class, top row: Sarah Jaffray, Caitlyn Shea, Cara Stepp, Nicole Radford, Meghan Flanagan. Second row: Fatima Toor, Elizabeth Bartell, Kari Caesar, Aruna Sarma Chavali, Christine Johnson, Sarah Culver. Third row:  Meghan Taugher, Cloelle Sausville-Giddings, Tsui Mei Chang, An-Chi Tsou, Susan Strom. Fourth row: Becky Silverstein, Kerri Rossmeier, Julia Packer, Kamalea Cott.

Anna Mulrine is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

 

FEATURES
THE REAL WORLD - By Anna Mulrine
CUTTING THE GORDIAN KNOT - By Jeffrey Selingo
MAKING IT BIG - By Corinna Wu
RISING AGAIN - Photographs by Sylvia Plachy
horizontal line
COMMENTS
BRIEFINGS
DATABYTES
REFRACTIONS: Teaching for Posterity - By Henry Petroski
ASEE TODAY
ANNUAL CONFERENCE AT A GLANCE
CLASSIFIEDS
LAST WORD: Time for a Change - By Ernest T. Smerdon
BACK ISSUES

 

ASEE logo