Defending Smith College on Engineering
About a week ago I wrote a pretty sarcastic post about the Smith College engineering program — a Chronicle of Higher Education piece made it sound as though the institution was downplaying core engineering proficiency in order to graduate enough women (it’s an all-female college). Specifically, it said the curriculum “emphasizes context, ethics, and communication as much as formulas and equations.” A reader argued that these are in fact important facets to engineering, so the college might just be exploiting a more female-friendly niche, not creating bad engineers.
Peter Bogucki, an associate undergraduate dean at Princeton’s engineering school, wrote me today, and he has direct experience with Smith engineering students — some come to Princeton as visiting students in their junior years. Bogucki makes a different defense, namely that the program isn’t quite as radical as the impression I’d taken from the article:
They’re very well prepared and are able to take the really tough Princeton junior-year engineering courses without a problem. So for all the institutional rhetoric about taking a different approach, their academic content is equal to other top engineering programs, since you can’t repeal the second law of thermodynamics, and the level of rigor is very high. Engineering isn’t the same as science, and you can’t be a good engineer unless you understand the economic, political, historical, and ethical context of what you’re trying to do, as well as being able to communicate the wisdom of your design to a broader audience.