New Wellesley Course Will Encourage Women to Study Engineering

For immediate release:
July 5, 2006
Arlie Corday

WELLESLEY, Mass. -- Wellesley College, the nation’s top women’s college, extends its academic reach next spring with a course aimed at encouraging a career in engineering. “Introduction to Engineering Science” will be a major part of a new introductory engineering experience designed to connect Wellesley students with opportunities at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering – and beyond.

The new course is funded by a grant of $235,000 from the Davis Educational Foundation, established by Stanton and Elisabeth Davis after Mr. Davis’s retirement as chairman of Shaw’s Supermarkets Inc.

Students will work in teams on projects that incorporate basic engineering principles and will use modern tools and techniques that cut across many engineering disciplines. The goal is to bring more women into the field of engineering.

“Girls are still less likely than boys to select engineering and other physics-based science fields in college,” noted a 2002 article in the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. A 2004 National Academy of Engineering report, "The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century," looks ahead to the not-too-distant future when engineers are predicted to become leaders in everything from government to medicine. In the 21st century, engineering looks to be an outstanding career choice for the best and brightest students, both male and female.

Complementing the new course, engineers from a range of disciplines will discuss research frontiers and career possibilities with the Wellesley students, who will also take advantage of coordinated advising, in which professors from Wellesley, MIT and Olin will help to identify a program of engineering courses to complement each student’s major.

Wellesley students have long been able to cross register for classes at MIT and more recently at Olin. The new class will make it easier to explore and further engineering studies.

This introduction to engineering has been several years in development, beginning with a series of discussions at Wellesley in 2003. In 2005, with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Wellesley physics professor Theodore Ducas visited a number of leading institutions in engineering education to design the project. In addition to consulting with professors, he attended classes and laboratories to see how students experienced their exposure to engineering.

A preliminary half-unit version of the course was offered during Wellesley’s month-long Wintersession in January 2006. “It was one of the most worthwhile classes I've taken at Wellesley,” said Wellesley sophomore Breanna Skinner of Dingle, Idaho, about the Wintersession preview. “For me, it opened up the different options I could take in following a path in engineering.”

Skinner especially enjoyed exploring the parallels between engineering and other disciplines.

“We used a computer program, and, while learning about circuits and elementary electronics, created a virtual spring which we could use in a clock,” Skinner said. “We also learned that engineering projects often model ideas from nature. We were able to take our finished oscillating wheels, powered by the virtual springs, and link them together. We started them out-of-phase, but found that they soon synchronized. This behavior is found in some social animals in nature.”

The experience will help Skinner map out future studies. “I plan to continue taking physics and math courses at Wellesley, and perhaps some engineering classes at other schools,” she said. “I'm not completely sure what I want to do ‘when I grow up,’ but I feel Wellesley, and the programs Wellesley opens up in other schools, will be good preparation if I decide engineering is a career option.”

Next spring, Ducas will join two Olin engineering professors, Gill Pratt and Brian Storey, to form the team that will teach the first full term version of the class. Ducas believes the course can show how students at a leading liberal arts college can get an effective start on the path towards becoming engineering leaders.

“The engineers of the future will need to combine their technical skills with the ability to communicate effectively and with an awareness of the social contexts of their projects,” he said. “I believe our Wellesley students who graduate with a science major and an engineering complement will be in an especially good position to make significant positive contributions to society.”

Wellesley has long stated its mission as “to provide an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world.” With the addition of engineering, Wellesley will certainly expand the opportunities for it students to make a difference in an increasingly technological world. For more information, go to