Changing the field, changing the world

| March 18, 2013

Students in electrical circuits lab apply the fundamental principles and mathematical techniques used to analyze and model analog and digital circuits.

This is the third story in our series honoring Women’s History Month and this year’s theme, “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.”

Picture an engineer. Do you see a guy wearing a hardhat and a tie? Maybe a pencil rests behind his ear as he examines a blueprint. If you look at the list of graduates from Sweet Briar’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program, you will find quite a different picture. There’s Sarah Smiley ’09, managing aviation and aerospace projects at General Electric, Christina Johnson Pappas ’08, researching thermo fluidics at the University of Virginia, and MaryAnne Haslow-Hall ’11, improving the manufacturing process at Glad. Talent and hard work earned them the title of “engineer,” but it was the program’s faculty, the advisory board and its namesake, Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45, who made engineering possible at Sweet Briar in the first place.

In 2002, an award from the National Science Foundation kicked off the planning stages for the program at a time when only one other women’s university, Smith College, offered an engineering curriculum. Hank Yochum was hired to teach physics that same year. Today, Yochum is also professor of engineering and serves as the department’s director.

“I don’t think anyone could have imagined that it would turn into what it did,” he says about the thriving program, which offers an ABET-accredited degree.

A hands-on degree

The first official class of engineering majors entered Guion Science Center in 2005, and Pappas was the first Sweet Briar student to graduate with a B.S. in engineering science in 2008. Today she is a Ph.D. candidate in the mechanical and aerospace engineering program at the University of Virginia.

Pappas was no stranger to research when she started at UVa. At Sweet Briar, it’s common for engineering students to participate in faculty research projects from day one. Beginning in her first year, Pappas worked on collaborative projects, including radio astronomy with physics professor Scott Hyman. Today, she calls her undergraduate time an “incubation period” that prepared her for a career in research.

Sweet Briar’s “Explore” programs draw high school women from around the country to spend a week or weekend being an engineering student.

Haslow-Hall had a similar experience. She spent her second summer in college drawing up plans for a low-cost prosthetic hand with associate professor Scott Pierce. By her junior year, she was machining a partial prosthesis that would be her research focus for the rest of her undergraduate career.

Haslow-Hall believes Sweet Briar’s small program afforded more hands-on experience than she would have had elsewhere. And seeing projects from inception proved important, because she now regularly implements new designs and ideas at Glad Manufacturing in Amherst.

Lab hours and experiential learning are central to the program. Doing real work is critical for engineering students, Yochum says, because the undergraduate degree is the professional degree. Many Sweet Briar alumnae pursue advanced study, but those who don’t typically find jobs in the field as soon as they graduate.

Haslow-Hall credits the Technology and Society course for familiarizing her with project development. The class exposes students to social issues that influence how engineering solutions are designed and implemented. It’s one of the core requirements for the degree and is offered either from a regional or a global perspective. In Haslow-Hall’s class, students designed and built tools that address specific needs of employees with disabilities at Lynchburg Sheltered Industries, a local nonprofit manufacturing company.

It was important to Yochum and Pierce that the students visited LSI and worked with the individuals who would be using the devices. They wanted to show the students that, behind all the math, what engineers really do is help solve problems for others.

“If you didn’t solve their problem, even if you thought you did a good job, you didn’t,” Yochum explains.

Haslow-Hall and Smiley worked together on the LSI collaboration. Their team designed a kit that aided workers assigned to assemble a unit from several component parts. Because the task requires considerable dexterity, the team identified the step as “rate-limiting” for disabled workers, who get paid based on productivity. Their design not only speeded the process for the worker’s benefit, it won third place in a workplace innovation design contest.

“Our students … helped a number of workers make more money, which is a pretty powerful thing to do as a college student,” Yochum says.

Some years, Technology and Society students go out of the country to fulfill the course requirements — helping to address the challenge of an intense curriculum that often makes a semester or year abroad difficult for engineering students. In recent years, classes have traveled to Brazil and Guatemala.

Moving past “male-dominated”

After graduating, Smiley entered a master’s program in engineering management at Dartmouth College, where she was one of seven women in her class of 50. Most engineers will admit that the field is male-dominated, Smiley says. Today she is a quality engineer in aviation and aerospace at GE. Her company, like many others, is interested in diversifying their employee pool, but women engineers are still not the norm, she says.

Bethany Brinkman, who joined Sweet Briar’s engineering faculty in 2010, agrees. “I don’t see any barriers that I had to overcome just because I’m a woman, and that’s wonderful,” she said. “Certainly the barrier right now is that we don’t have many women in [engineering].”

The annual Cardboard Boat Regatta is part of an introductory course in engineering design that is open to all interested students.

According to the most recent data published by the Society of Women Engineers, women represented about 20 percent of engineers in 2008. Sweet Briar is trying to increase that number. Since the report was released, the College has hosted several “Explore Engineering” weekends and weeklong summer camps for high school girls.

“Engineering is this nebulous field where you don’t quite know what people do,” Yochum explains. The program is meant to dissipate misconceptions about engineering, especially the idea that all engineers must be math geniuses.

The core message Yochum hopes to get across is that “engineers help people. Engineers help society. And if you become an engineer then you can help other people.”

About 20 percent of the “Explore Engineering” program’s participants end up enrolling at Sweet Briar, including Pappas’ younger sister, Amanda Johnson ’14. This past spring, four of the majors who worked as “Explore” mentors were once participants themselves. Whether they choose Sweet Briar or not, these high school students are more likely to consider engineering as a career — simply because they tried it out.

Seeking to promote such opportunities for more high school women, AREVA, an international nuclear engineering firm, has become the title sponsor of the Explore Engineering program for the summer and fall of 2013 and spring of 2014.

“In engineering, what you bring to the table besides your technical training turns out to be pretty important,” Yochum said, adding that companies such as AREVA recognize how important it is to have people from all kinds of backgrounds contributing a diverse range of potential solutions to a problem.

This mindset has not always prevailed in engineering, though. In the early 1940s, Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 wanted to study engineering, but found few options available to her. Not many programs accepted women and no women’s college offered the degree at the time.

“Women were not wanted or trusted to be engineers,” she told Virginia Business magazine.

Wyllie pursued chemistry at Sweet Briar instead, but her interest in engineering remained strong. In 2010, she and her late husband, Jesse, donated $3 million to the engineering department to support scholarships, lab equipment, the Technology and Society projects and more. Although the Wyllies had made smaller donations earlier in the department’s history that were critical to its development, the program’s name recognizes the 2010 endowment.

The donation allows more Sweet Briar students and graduates to contribute to the changing face of the very field that kept Wyllie out. And they are doing just that, whether it’s through their work, through research, or through community involvement. Yochum says he is impressed by “the extent to which students rise to the occasion,” and encouraged by the positive feedback he gets from internship supervisors. Watching his students talk confidently about engineering to high school girls is icing on the cake.

“It always makes us really proud,” he says.

— Amanda Keener ’08

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Category: Engineering Science, Women's History Month