Engineering and the Human Spirit
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.