Engineering at Smith College: Bit of Hope for the Future?

There is an interesting article in the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) this week on the introduction of the first engineering program at a women's college. It is particularly relevant to some of the discussion (here and here, for example) on the potential future state of US high-tech.

The article says,

"The first women's college to offer an engineering degree, Smith is forging new paths in a field that's eager to swell its ranks in the United States. Women receive only 20 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering, according to a new report by the National Science Board (NSB). Like a handful of other liberal arts colleges, Smith is producing graduates who've had a different type of engineering education â'' one that goes beyond technical training to focus on a broader context for finding solutions to humanity's problems; one that emphasizes ethics and communication; one so flexible that about half the students study abroad, which is rare, despite the multinational nature of many engineering jobs."

It also sounds like Smith has gone and hired some very gifted instructors, such as Professor Glen Ellis, who the CSM writes arrived "at his engineering class dressed as a mountain climber. He hooks a rope to the ceiling, projects snow-capped scenery on the wall, and asks a volunteer to join him in a mock ascent." Needless to say, the students pay attention to the lecture and get a broader view of what engineering as a subject means.

Ellis makes the point in a speech in accepting his US Professor of the Year award last November from Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education that,

"It is just not good enough to teach the way that we were taught. We know that doing so in engineering will surely exclude many of the young people we need to attract."

Amen to that.

The CSM article goes on to state that, "Much research in recent years points to the idea that the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and math, known collectively as STEM, is crying out for improvement. ... The NSB report says that 83 percent of professors still use lecture and discussion as their primary methods in undergraduate classes."

The trick is, of course, how to compete for the attention of young minds among all the other possibilities and get them interested in STEM without dumbing it down into becoming a clown college atmosphere. I don't think there are a lot of extroverted, innovative or self-confident STEM professors like Glenn Ellis's out there, or STEM departments that encourage this approach either. Maybe what is needed is a graduate school for STEM professors (and their Deans) to learn how to teach these subjects more interestingly to students who are increasingly skeptical of the value of these fields.

BTW, the NSB has several reports on the state of STEM education and the workforce that may be of interest. The reports are the above referenced Science and Engineering Indicators, Moving Forward to Improve Engineering Education, A National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education System, and The Science and Engineering Workforce: Realizing America's Potential.

A lot of good thoughts in the NSB reports; unfortunately, not a lot of movement, money or care that I can see from those in position to make a lasting difference on the ground.

Smith is to be congratulated for its approach, but it is only a small college in Massachusetts. A lot more needs to be done.


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Willie D. Jones