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Engineering and the Human Spirit

Domenico Grasso

Liberating Education

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.

Figure 1. Engineering benefitsClick to Enlarge Image

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.

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