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Breaking: Equations Not All That Important In Engineering



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(Update added after the jump.)

Soon after the Larry Summers debacle, Charles Murray summarized the reason for the gender gap in math and science:

[There is] a distributional difference in male and female characteristics that leads to a larger number of men with high visuospatial skills. The difference has an evolutionary rationale, a physiological basis and a direct correlation with math scores.

Well, a Smith College professor found a way around that for getting women into engineering: Ignore the math. From the Chronicle:

[The curriculum] emphasizes context, ethics, and communication as much as formulas and equations.

Smith, the first women’s college to offer an engineering degree, graduated its first class of engineers in 2004, and since the program’s creation, in 1999, has attained a 90-percent retention rate

I’m no expert, but I’m not clear on what you can engineer with “context, ethics, and communication.” I hope the Chronicle is wrong in saying that this engineering curriculum emphasizes sociology and philosophy “as much as,” um, engineering.

To be sure, if teaching in this way improves women’s performance on actual engineering tasks, as opposed to just luring them into enrolling and sticking around, I’m all for it. But I find it hard to believe such distractions would improve on a focused curriculum, and I can’t seem to find any information on (A) how these students compare to those who got into sex-integrated engineering programs and (B) how these women do when they graduate. Certainly, were the program working well, it wouldn’t need affirmative-action deals like this:

Students who maintain an overall GPA of 3.5 and a GPA of 3.5 within the major are automatically admitted to graduate study in an engineering discipline at Dartmouth College, Johns Hopkins University, Tufts University, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Michigan.

UPDATE: Here I focused on the reason the Chronicle discussed for having a different curriculum — drawing in more women. An engineer reader, however, writes to say there are legitimate reasons to push engineering instruction in this direction:

An increased emphasis on communication is, to me, a no-brainer. My work is highly numerical in nature; and I have spent a good portion of my academic life reading and reviewing papers and books, and interacting with my colleagues in classrooms, seminars, and conferences. So personal experience definitely guides my view. I *heartily* endorse any effort to improve both the written and spoken communication skills of my future colleagues.

And another great point:

There is some variability as to what makes a good engineer. . . . It would not surprise me or bother me if women innately excel in different areas of engineering than others. If that is the case, then it seems natural to me that Smith would exploit that knowledge and tailor their curriculum to suit.

 UPDATE II: More here.



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