NORTHAMPTON, Mass. Liz Bartell thought she would major in Spanish or another of the liberal arts when she arrived at the all-women Smith College.
But she had always liked math, so, at her mother's urging, she took an introductory course in engineering her first semester.
''It was insanely hard and I didn't do well, but I loved it,'' Bartell said. ''It was so challenging I just couldn't get enough.''
On Sunday, the Houston native will be among the first 20 graduates of the first engineering program at a women's liberal arts college in the United States. Then she's off for a job as a transportation engineer with a Florida company.
The Smith women aren't alone. Across the nation, about one in five of this year's engineering graduates will be women. By comparison, women made up about 2 percent of the engineering class in 1975.
The old image of an engineer as a white man sporting a pocket protector and a bow tie so his neckpiece doesn't drag across his drafting board is quietly changing. Work forces have become more diversified and the higher buying power of women has raised demand for products designed to accommodate their shape and needs.
This year, Georgia Tech handed engineering diplomas to 325 women, about 24 percent of the class.
The percentages are higher at elite engineering schools such as MIT and Cal Tech and even more so at several historically black colleges and universities, where more than 40 percent of the graduating engineers are women.
Historically, a major stumbling block for female engineering students has been ''an attitude that they have to prove themselves,'' said Mimi Philobus, director of Georgia Tech's support program.
''When you have to struggle all the time, it becomes tiring,'' Philobus said. ''When a woman faces that struggle immediately as an undergraduate and can look forward only to continuing to do so in the work place, it becomes a major factor in applications and retention.''
All the universities generating large numbers of female engineers have vigorous outreach, mentoring and other efforts, including special prizes, dinners and scholarships, aimed at attracting and keeping their female students. Georgia Tech now has a retention rate of more than 90 percent.
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