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Liberal Arts Schools Create Less Macho Niche for Engineering


When Kara Peterman was a high school student interested in engineering, she toured a high-powered engineering university in the Northeast that proudly displayed photos of its graduates.

She counted three women in one picture.

“I wasn’t really encouraged,” she recalled.

Today, Peterman is a 20-year-old junior engineering major at Swarthmore College an elite school renowned primarily for its liberal arts program. It’s one of an increasing number of colleges traditionally known for the humanities English, history, philosophy that is creating or strengthening a niche for engineering students.

Wellesley College, a top-tier women’s school outside Boston, offered its first engineering course last spring. Smith College, an elite liberal arts school for women in western Massachusetts, graduated its first engineering majors in 2004.

“Engineering is science in service to society,” said Ted Ducas, a Wellesley professor. “Addressing fundamental problems of the world that’s of great interest to our students.”

The schools are positioning themselves as alternatives for students, especially women and minorities, who might feel intimidated by larger, big-name engineering schools and their perceived macho culture.

Engineering is a growing field, with more than 76,000 bachelor’s degrees in the subject conferred last year nationwide, compared with just over 65,000 a decade ago, according to the American Association of Engineering Societies.

Wellesley wasn’t quite ready to start a full-fledged degree program, but wanted to see if an introductory class sparked more interest in a cross-enrollment program with MIT and Olin College of Engineering, Ducas said. Olin opened in 2001 with the mission to broaden the scope of engineering programs to include substantial training in business and humanities.

About a dozen students have expressed an interest in the Wellesley engineering class for this coming spring, Ducas said. Six students enrolled last year the first time the class was offered but he said 13 took an abbreviated version of the course during winter session.

“It’s an opportunity to generate some kinds of engineers with a wider viewpoint,” said Ducas. “It’s critical to have the engineers of the future connected to society. … The world is not getting less technological.”

The trend is driven partly by changes in accreditation standards in recent years that recognized the need for more well-rounded engineering students who can better understand the communities in which they work.

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