Back in 2003, Linda Sorto ’07 was an ambitious high school senior looking for a challenge. While on campus for Discovery Weekend, she overheard someone say, “Engineering is a killer major at Smith.”
That piqued her interest. Later, when a professor told her, “With engineering, we solve society’s problems,” Sorto was sold. “I knew engineering would let me make a difference right away,” she recalls now.
Sorto went on to join what would become Smith’s fourth class of engineering majors, graduating in 2007 with a bachelor of engineering science. Now she is part of a team at The Boeing Company, designing airliner interiors, and is considering graduate work. Her path reflects how Smith’s bold effort to change the face of engineering is paying off with more liberally educated women working in the field, and who in turn are attracting a new generation of women to the profession. At the same time, the engineering program is changing Smith itself.
It has been 15 years since Smith made headlines by launching the Picker Engineering Program, the first program of its kind at a women’s college and among very few at liberal arts colleges. Since then, Smith engineers have brought a broad, liberal arts approach to a profession that has traditionally been focused on in-depth but narrow technical training. Guiding the Picker program have been two overarching goals: to make Smith a primary source for talented women engineers and, equally distinctive, to upend the traditional model of educating engineers.
Domenico Grasso, now provost at the University of Delaware, served as founding director of the program from 2000 to 2005. He says most engineering programs are primarily vocational in nature, preparing students for professional practice. When he arrived on campus, he had more revolutionary ideas for Smith’s approach. “I wanted to develop a totally different view of engineering education, one that was intellectually stimulating and that integrated the humanities, social sciences and the arts,” he recalls.
To that end, Grasso and his founding faculty built a course of study that to this day is broad and interdisciplinary. Rather than specializing in one field of engineering (electrical, chemical, civil and so on), students explore all fields, graduating with a bachelor of arts (A.B.) in engineering arts or a bachelor of science (S.B.) in engineering science. Coursework emphasizes collaboration. One of Grasso’s first hires was Susan Voss, whom he lured from MIT, where she was a postdoc conducting research on sound transmission through the auditory system. “I applied only because the vision was so compelling,” says Voss, now director of the Picker program.
Smith’s approach proved ahead of its time. Engineering Professor Andrew Guswa, who also has been with the program since its early days and will take over as chair beginning next year, observes that the field of engineering is “just now catching up” to the way Smith has been teaching engineering for years. “What’s valuable now is a more holistic view of engineering,” he says, “one that values integration, teamwork, communication—one that puts engineering in context. This is what we have always been about.”
The impact of the Picker program—named for the late physicist, inventor and philanthropist Harvey Picker and his wife, Jean Sovatkin Picker ’42—can be seen across campus. The major is so distinctive that Smith had to create its first bachelor of science degree to accommodate it. At Commencement, S.B. graduates underscore the distinction by replacing their mortarboards with white Smith-branded hard hats.
The program intersects with other innovative initiatives, including two that will begin this fall. Through a collaboration with MassMutual Insurance and Mount Holyoke College, Smith students will be able to take courses in the emerging field of data sciences. At the same time, with support from the Branta Foundation, Smith will pilot a program in design thinking and innovation. Borjana Mikic, the R. B. Hewlett ’40 Professor of Engineering, says the design thinking initiative is based on the observation that the gap between an idea and its transformation into a reality provides tremendous opportunity for learning. Faculty from many departments have become deeply interested in design-based curricula, Mikic notes, “because we see it as a transformative turn in the liberal arts. Design thinking fosters a collaborative approach to creative, agile problem solving at a very high level.”
Ford Hall, the 140,000-square-foot LEED-certified building that houses engineering and other sciences, is a nexus for creativity and creation—and a compelling recruitment tool. First-year enrollment in the college’s introductory engineering course has more than doubled since Ford opened in 2010. Martin Green, assistant director of engineering, notes that Ford’s design makes the laboratories visible; anyone walking down the hallway can see Smith women engaged in hands-on research, and colorful posters on the lab doors explain what the work is about. “Seeing Smith students actively participating in research shows prospective students that they can do it, too,” Green notes.
This is important, especially given stagnant, and even declining, participation in engineering among women. Nationally, the number of engineering degrees awarded to women hovers around 19 percent, Guswa says. A recent study cited in The New York Times estimates that women make up 14 percent of the engineering work force. Now, Guswa notes, is not the time for complacency in attracting women to the field. In an increasingly tech-oriented world, he says, there’s an opportunity, and a need, for engineering to play an important role for all Smith students. “What would it look like,” he asks, “for everyone who graduates from Smith to be technologically literate?”
Part of the answer may lie in the experiences of alumnae of the program. Sorto, for example, believes Smith’s interdisciplinary approach gave her a leg up on her colleagues. “My training wasn’t as technical as some of the engineers I work with, but at Smith we learned about every area of engineering: electrical, structural, chemical, ethics,” she says. “This comprehensive knowledge is key to my job.”
Cara Stepp ’04, a member of Smith’s first class of engineers, recalls learning how to build a radio in Professor Susan Voss’ Signals and Systems class. Today, Stepp is teaching students at Boston University and conducting research that she hopes will make it easier for people who’ve had strokes or spinal cord injuries to communicate. Earlier this year, she and Caitlyn Shea Butler ’04, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts, were among 340 scholars nationally who received a career development award from the National Science Foundation. The award, with a stipend of more than $500,000, is the NSF’s most prestigious honor for junior faculty.
Another alumna, Teresa Berra AC ’09, works on weapons control systems for the U.S. Navy and appreciates being able to tackle problems from various angles. “Being at a liberal arts college fosters much more creativity in your approach to engineering,” she says. “Without creativity in my approach, I don’t know where I’d be.”
From Grasso’s earliest ideas about an engineering program at Smith to the current faculty’s expansive vision, the Picker Engineering Program is being seen at Smith as an important new component of a liberal arts education. “We live in an engineered world—from drones to energy generation to medical devices to stormwater,” Guswa says. “In a recent review of their program, the faculty wrote that it is our hope that all graduates of Smith, regardless of major, feel confident in their engagement with technology and with their ability to understand and appreciate engineering designs.”
SAQ, Summer 2015