Smith College program breaks new ground

By Sharon Gaudin, Network World |  Career

Smith is becoming the first U.S. women's college to offer a degree in engineering. The small liberal arts college in Northampton, Mass., welcomed its first engineering students this fall, though next year's freshmen will be the first class eligible for an engineering degree. And the classes have proven so popular that students are lined up to register.

"Companies are looking for women now," says Malgorzata Pfabe, head of the new engineering department. "If we have well-qualified engineers, they will get jobs. The nation cannot afford to not take advantage of so many human brains."

Pfabe says the reason Smith never offered an engineering degree before was more because of how engineering fits into a liberal arts curriculum than how women fit into engineering. "There was the thinking that liberal arts and engineering did not mix," Pfabe says. "We 're getting beyond that."

Pfabe says she is glad she can reach out to female students who might not have been encouraged in math and science as much as they could have been.

"Many students express to me that they had such a bad experience in high school with math and science," she says. "But they can do this. They just need to be taught well."

Ileana Streinu, assistant professor of computer science, says it's important to give girls and women strong female role models in the math and science arenas. "If a woman thinks she can only be a success as a model or an actress, that is the problem," Streinu says.

Heather White, a senior physics major at Smith, is turning her science interest into a potential career in programming. And she's not thinking about breaking down barriers as much as she's thinking about getting a job. "I 'm starting to get really tired of academia, so I don't know about going to grad school and doing problem sets for the rest of my life," says White, who had a summer job writing code for FNreporter.com. "The market is ripe for people to dissolve the gender problems. You have all these jobs open and employers just want good, smart workers. I don't have to worry about getting a job, and that makes it a very, very attractive field."

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