Engineering and the Human Spirit
The campus of Smith College is one of the most pleasant places
in the world to be on a sunny afternoon. The setting is so
lovely, the academic atmosphere so tranquil, that when I first
arrived here, I was totally captivated. The spell of the place,
however, made me uneasy about my mission, which was to convince
a few of the students at this premier, all female liberal arts
college that they ought to become engineers. The mission, as it
turned out, was destined to fail.
So began an article by Samuel C. Florman, author of The
Existential Pleasures of Engineering, published in
Harper's magazine in 1978. Nationally, the interest of
women in engineering has not improved significantly since then. Only
1 percent of college graduates are women who have studied
engineering. Only 20 percent of all undergraduate engineering majors
are women. And only 6 percent of engineering professors are women.
"Look to your left and look to your right; one of these
students will not be with you at graduation." This has been the
common prologue to the academic career of many engineering hopefuls.
In part as a result of this sieving process, we now have a situation
where the United States doesn't educate enough engineers to meet its
needs. In 2002, U.S. institutions of higher learning graduated
approximately 69,000 engineers, yet we were nevertheless forced to
attract some 25,000 more from other countries—creating a
technological brain drain from many nations that can ill afford it.
Although forecasts for the future are somewhat uncertain (and some
even question the need to educate more engineers), it is certain
that our engineering workforce needs more diversity. In contrast
with medicine and law, the engineering profession remains "pale
and male," with white men making up 90 percent of practicing engineers.
Greater diversity would help, for example, to overcome the
bad-driver syndrome. Let me explain: Not so many years ago, women
were accused, stereotypically, of being bad drivers. Why? Because
cars were designed by men, for men—indeed, for your average
5-foot-10-inch man. Women, who are usually shorter, often could not
see the four corners of the car from the driver’s seat, which
may have contributed to countless numbers of fender-benders. This
commonplace example illustrates how some diversity at the design
table might help to avoid bad—even dangerous—designs.
The quest for greater diversity in engineering explains why in 1999,
on the same bucolic campus described in the pages of
Harper’s 21 years earlier, the faculty voted to
establish the first and only engineering program at a women’s
college. They were proving Sophia Smith (founder of Smith),
absolutely right when she said in 1870 that the college will have
curricula "as coming times … demand for the education of
women and the progress of the race." Educating women in
engineering is surely a case in point.
Today Smith boasts a student body comprising nearly 5 percent
engineering majors. Five of the nine engineering faculty are women.
And in May of this year, Smith will graduate the first engineering
class in U.S. history that is composed entirely of women.
Many of these women will go on to join the ranks of the engineering
workforce, bringing with them an array of concerns and insights that
their male counterparts might lack. Of course, some of these women,
as Florman bemoaned back in 1978, will not choose to become
engineers, for a variety of reasons. My colleagues and I at Smith
are convinced that an engineering education will serve a woman well
no matter what path she chooses in life. And it will also serve
society. If information is the currency of democracy, informed
thought and intelligent decision-making must be the currency of a
sustainable civilization. Indeed, as former Harvard president Derek
Bok noted, "Of all our national assets, a trained intelligence
and a capacity for innovation and discovery seem destined to be the
most important." Engineering, a cornerstone of Bok’s
"innovation and discovery," teaches one form of reasoning,
one of many. I would argue that the way engineering students learn
to think is especially valuable.
And what after all is engineering thought? A common misperception is
that engineering is another one of the sciences. It is not.
Engineering decisions rarely hinge entirely on science. Rather,
engineers must also consider many other factors such as economics,
safety, accessibility, manufacturability, reliability, the
environment and sustainability, to name a few. Engineers must learn
to manage and integrate a wide variety of information and knowledge
to make sound decisions.
Engineers at Smith learn that such decisions must be tempered by an
element that is often lacking in the education of
engineers—the human spirit. Their education reflects the
admonition of Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of
Motorcycle Maintenance, who believed that technology should
not be "an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and
the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both."
At Smith, we define engineering as the application of mathematics
and science to serve humanity. This definition necessarily requires
that our graduates appreciate the human condition. Our program is
noted for the same quantitative rigor as those at leading
universities but is also distinguished by the way our students fuse
Pirsig's "nature and the human spirit." In the education
of Smith engineers, the study of the humanities and social sciences
is just as important as the study of the physical sciences and mathematics.
Melding the Two Cultures
Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson once asserted that "the greatest
enterprise of the mind has always been and always will be the
attempted linkage of the sciences and the humanities." At
Smith, this challenge has become the organizing principle for our
engineering program. We make it clear to our students that
engineering is the application of science to enrich the human
condition. Indeed, a sense of social relevance and social
responsibility pervades the entire engineering curriculum.
But how can we teach these students everything they need to know in
just four years? By handing out a lot of homework? Probably not.
Instead, the faculty tries to help students hone their critical
thinking using techniques usually associated with study in the
liberal arts and through structured problem solving, which is
typically associated with an engineering education. In this way, we
provide students with the tools and the desire to be continuous
learners. Thus, long after their detailed recollections of the
Navier-Stokes equation and the Pieta have faded, Smith engineering
graduates will still retain an ability to think critically and to
learn more about a subject on their own.
How do we teach them those skills? The Smith faculty does not apply
one particular method, recognizing that there are a variety of modes
of reasoning and styles of presentation that prove to be effective.
We feel that the more exposure students have to various ways of
thinking, the better equipped they will be to succeed.
So, rather than forcing them to pick one specialty from a
smorgasbord of engineering degree programs, we offer a single
degree, a B.S. in Engineering Science, which focuses on the
fundamentals of all the engineering disciplines. With rigorous study
in the three basic areas—mechanics, electrical systems and
thermochemical processes—students learn to apply first
principles to structure engineering solutions to a variety of
problems. Complementing this technical rigor, our faculty expects
that the students' work will be informed by the diversity of thought
that they have acquired from their classes in the humanities and
social sciences. In short, the engineering program at Smith is
designed to diversify the ranks of America's engineering
professionals (and of those who sit at the highest levels of
government and corporate America) in intellect as well as gender.