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Engineering and the Human Spirit

Domenico Grasso

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.

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