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The director of the Picker Engineering Program at Smith College will be the first to tell you, “A lot of women today don’t hear about engineering or think about it as something to study or as a profession.”
But, Linda Ellen Jones, Ph.D., will also tell you, she and her staff at the all-female school are hard at work to change that.
“We are trying to change engineering as a whole,” she says.
Unlike a lot of other engineering schools that offer a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering, Smith College also offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in the field so gifted engineers can teach it effectively, according to Jones.
“The Bachelor of Arts is a few credits out of the engineering degree. It allows (students) to take an education degree,” she says. “It is challenging to find engineers who can teach.”
According to Jones, students apply to Smith and then enter the Picker Engineering Program. This year, 103 women are enrolled in the program.
“We don’t really market the program, per se,” she says. “We recruit into Smith and then they can enter the engineering program.”
Senior Chan Lim was accepted to Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Mercer University and Smith and it was the small all-female institution that won her over. She is studying engineering science with a concentration in mechanical engineering and interned at General Electric last summer.
“It was my last choice and the last school I visited. I didn’t think I would enjoy going to an all-women’s college. I didn’t think I’d fit in,” she says. “The first time I saw the Smith campus, I immediately felt the connection that I had been looking for. The people are friendly and energetic.”
Lim says she has learned several theories and the program has been a lot more hands-on than she expected. “We have a lot of real-world problems and projects that we do in class,” she says. “We don’t go into technical depth. It’s a normal, traditional engineering program. It’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It helps a lot when we need to move on to a new project we don’t know anything about.”
Lim says she feels a definite bias in the engineering industry, one that came through in her summer internship.
“We had a lot of male students and it was hard, but in a way, being at Smith, they prepare us to be ready for these things and I think most of us are confident in our abilities,” she says. “There’s been a lot of initiatives trying to get women in to the engineering field, but it’s still slow progress.”
Jones says bias is “an extraordinary condition” that is “impossible to remove entirely.”
“I think the major issue is not the limitations/challenges after receiving the degree, but getting there in the first place. This nation does not understand the role engineers play in just about every aspect of our lives and as a result doesn’t hold engineering in the same esteem as perhaps one who practices law or medicine,” she says. “So, why promote the degree as a pathway to one’s future? The truth is that as a society and nation there are tremendous challenges in front of us in terms of globalization, environmental sustainability, human health and the need for resources. We are at a remarkable frontier and we clearly need creative men and women in the field.”
The program started with 24 students in 1999 thanks to a $7 million gift from Dr. Harvey Picker, a longtime Smith donor and his wife, the late Jean Sovatkin Picker, a 1942 Smith graduate and former U.N. official.
“In 1999, responding to a national need for women engineers and a commitment to providing significant new opportunities for its graduates, the Smith College Board of Trustees voted to establish the nation’s first engineering program at a women’s college,” says Kristen Cole, director of Media Relations.
According to Jones, Harvey Mudd College officials exchanged ideas with Smith College regarding approaches to engineering education, but its program was not used as a basis for the Picker program. “We have and continue to be interested in Mudd’s approach to their design curriculum,” she says.