Turning tradition on its ear

June 20, 2002
New teaching methods may go a long way toward attracting more students, especially women, to engineering.

Dr. Grasso helps as Cara Stepp, a member of Smith's first class of engineering students, uses a surfacetension goniometer to measure the interfacial tension of various materials.

Students in a fluid mechanics course get hands-on experience measuring flow discharge in a river.

Women comprise only about 9% of practicing engineers and 20% of engineering students in the U.S. Fact is, most women are not well-informed about engineering and in many cases, don't even know what engineers do or how they contribute to society, according to a 1998 Harris poll commissioned by the American Association of Engineering Societies. The Harris group actually dubbed engineering "the stealth profession." That may be why when it comes time to choose a college and career, engineering doesn't generate a second thought for most women.

By and large, experts agree the engineering profession hasn't made a very compelling case for its social relevance. Studies show women generally consider subjects and careers in areas where they feel they can make a difference. Without knowing how engineering fits into the big picture, the field often gets overlooked. Even with mentorship programs, scholarships, and other attempts to draw students to engineering, the numbers are still critically low. And, the problem doesn't end with women. Indeed, over about the last 15 years the number of engineering students overall has dropped, says the National Science Board. Worse, of those who initially choose engineering, fewer actually graduate with an engineering degree.

According to a report from the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education National Research Council, "The undergraduate years are the last opportunity for rigorous academic study of science, mathematics, and engineering by many future leaders of our society who will make important decisions involving science and technology." More than ever, newgeneration faculties are acknowledging a responsibility to not only turn out students literate in science and math, but also who have the communication and abstract reasoning skills needed to play meaningful roles in society.

Several colleges have stepped up to the challenge, offering a host of new ideas and methods for engaging students in learning. One such university is Smith College, Northampton, Mass. Interestingly, Smith is the first women's college to offer an undergraduate engineering curriculum. Besides that, Smith is a liberal arts college. Through its Picker Engineering Program, Smith College will graduate its first class in 2004 and seek accreditation immediately following.

MACHINE DESIGN recently had a chance to sit down with Professor Domenico Grasso, Ph.D., P.E., Chair of Smith's Picker Engineering Program, to discuss the changing face of engineering education.

MACHINE DESIGN: When was the Picker Engineering Program launched? What degrees are offered? What are the goals of the program?

Grasso: The program was approved in January 1999, and our first engineering students arrived for class in September 2000. We offer a B.S. in Engineering Science. We chose engineering science because it covers the underpinnings of all engineering disciplines. It is among the most rigorous plans of study because it focuses on the theoretical basis for design. Basically, the goal of the program is to graduate women engineering leaders; leaders of the engineering profession and engineers who are leaders of society.

M.D.: What are you doing differently at Smith to meet these goals?

Grasso: One of the main tenets of our program is to show the social relevance of engineering. If you ask engineers to define engineering they will say, almost exclusively, that it is the application of math and science. At Smith, we've taken that definition and expanded it: engineering is the application of math and science in the service of humanity. That makes a huge difference in the perception of what engineering is all about. Imagine asking a physician why he or she went into medicine and they respond, "Because I like biology." That's not why they do it. They do it because they want to make a difference and help people. We want our engineering students to make a difference in the world, too. And yes, they also must be good in math and science just as doctors must be good in math and science to get into medical school.

Another distinguishing feature of Smith's engineering program is that we are taking a learner-centered and inquiry-based approach to education. By that I mean we are trying to involve the students as active participants in the learning process, clearly identifying what we want from them at the end and engaging them throughout the semester. This is similar to what ABET is using for its Engineering Criteria 2000. We've taken this approach to heart.

It's important for students to understand why they are learning certain things and how everything is interrelated. It's not a question of how much information we can push in front of them, which is often how engineering education is handled. Rather, we must ask ourselves whether they are learning the concepts. Take, for instance, a fluid mechanics course at Smith. One of the hands-on experiments had students measuring the flow discharge in a river. The instructor asked them to design a procedure and implement it, then compare their findings to the USGS Web site. The experiment gave them a sense of ownership and helped them learn such things as dimensional analysis, fluid static, fluid dynamics, and the continuity equation.

M.D.: But how do you measure if a student is learning the concepts?

Grasso: Measuring whether or not they are learning is a matter of much discussion and we are working with the education department to develop assessment tools. Exams, for example, are designed so that particular questions match particular objectives. In one case, a midterm exam for Fluid Mechanics outlined the instructor's objectives for the course. Students were to have a conceptual understanding of what a fluid is and how it behaves, the analytical ability to use conservation laws and constitutive relationships to understand and predict fluid behavior, and show competence with verbal, visual, and mathematical means of communicating fluid mechanics ideas and concepts.

One question tested students on their ability to put fluid mechanics concepts (in this case, related to buoyancy and mass conservation) into mathematical form. It also tested problem-solving skills. The question was:

A cube of ice floats in a glass of water. Show that the water level in the glass will be the same after the ice melts if there is no evaporation.

According to the instructor, this question proved challenging for certain students. Although most were able to understand the concept, this pointed out a mathematical formalism issue the instructor plans to spend more time developing and reinforcing.

Though exam questions such as these are a good measure of how well students are meeting particular objectives, they are not the sole measure of students' abilities. Instructors pose conceptual questions in class and students work in groups to get answers. For instance, in Solid Mechanics, students studied the case history of the Kansas City Hyatt Regency collapse. First they worked in groups to analyze the connection and understand the nature of the failure, then they worked together as jurors to answer questions including: Who was responsible for the fatal design flaw and why? What is the significance of a licensed P.E. placing his/her seal on fabrication drawings? And, were the engineers involved in the failure negligent? Should they have lost their licenses? Having students explain problems such as these gives them a more visceral understanding of what they are doing.

M.D.: When developing Smith's engineering curriculum did you work with other engineering schools?

Grasso: We did ask our advisory board (President E. Parrish, WPI; Dean J. Wei, Princeton; Dean I. Busch-Vishniac, Johns Hopkins; Dean K. Johnson, Duke) to look over the curriculum and provide comments. Smith's engineering program is rigorous. In fact, a testament is that several graduate schools have already agreed to admit Smith graduates with a 3.5 GPA or higher without any application procedure.

The faculty has been instrumental in the program's success. We have a relatively small faculty with seven members, four of whom are women. That's pretty amazing when you consider the national average for women engineering faculty is only 4%.

Typically when hiring faculty members, a program director will ask applicants for presentations on their scholarship or activities in research work. We took it a step further and also asked for presentations on the role of engineering in a liberal-arts environment. That really clued us into the applicants' thinking.

It's not uncommon to run into people that think very narrowly and have a hard time understanding the need for a new type of engineering education. At Smith, we are trying to make engineering better. It just so happens we are doing it at a women's college. But the advances will extend to both men and women.

M.D.: Have the responses to the program of both students and educators been positive so far?

Grasso: The program has been very popular. Our first Introduction to Engineering class had 19 students enrolled and by the second year, that number jumped to 61. I think our program has also captured the imagination of the engineering community. I recently gave a talk to the mechanical-engineering heads in Florida describing what we are doing at Smith and it was well received.

M.D.: And do companies see the value in more liberally minded engineers?

Grasso: Forward-thinking companies definitely do and many are looking for creative, well-rounded engineers. Going back to the concept of social relevance, we are the only program that I know of that requires all of its students to take a course in Engineering, the Environment, and Sustainability. Here we discuss the whole concept of mass and energy flows through the environment, life-cycle analysis, and industrial ecology. In the past, engineers would see a blueprint page with a line labeled "Waste" extending off the page; nobody knew where it went. We want students to see the more broad-ranging implications of their work, everything from resource extraction to ultimate disposal of the products.

M.D.: How will Smith's education philosophy carry engineering graduates into the real world?

Grasso: With its relatively small size, we know Smith won't graduate a lot of students, but you can be sure our graduates will become engineering leaders. Their impact will be felt well beyond their numbers. My hope is that others will see what this type of education can do to empower people in their careers, and they will start looking to us for educational reform.

New standards, new attitudes
A big reason Smith College and other universities can devise more creative engineering programs is something called Engineering Criteria 2000 (EC 2000), new accreditation standards set by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

EC 2000, made up of eight criteria stressing quality and professional preparation, began its three-year phased implementation period last fall. The new program maintains the traditional core of engineering, math, and science requirements, but also has what some may consider a softer side, emphasizing teamwork and communication skills.

Why the change? Many industry leaders and educators felt the old standards were too long and rigid, encouraging a kind of "bean-counting" approach that stifled creativity. The new approach is more flexible. At its heart is an Outcomes and Assessment component that requires engineering programs to establish internal assessment processes, which are then reviewed by ABET. This component requires graduates not only be technically proficient, but also have an understanding of humanities and social sciences, including professional and ethical responsibilities.

ABET, made up of 31 professional engineering and technical societies, accredits more than 2,500 engineering programs at more than 550 colleges and universities nationally.

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