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.''
The Houston native was among the first 20 graduates of the first engineering program at a women's liberal arts college in the United States. Now 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.
The most extensive and determined recruitment effort has come from women themselves. For decades the Society of Women Engineers has reached out to middle school girls in hopes of interesting them early.
''When women in the field realized they were not alone, it made a big difference,'' said Amy Sue Bix, who teaches science and technology history at Iowa State and has studied the growth of women in engineering.
Women have been especially drawn to relatively new fields such as bioengineering and environmental engineering, said Thomas Magnanti, dean of engineering at MIT, where more a third of this year's graduating engineers are women.
At MIT, women make up 40 percent of the undergraduates studying chemical engineering and more than half of those in the combined civil and environmental engineering program.
Out of the 50 engineering faculty members hired at MIT in the last three years, 19 have been women, he said. Still, women make up only 14 percent of the engineering faculty at MIT and less than 10 percent of the engineering professors nationwide.
But some believe the professors' attitude is much more important than their sex.
''The women who come to us are well-prepared and win most of the top honors, but still you have to be encouraging,'' said Joseph Monroe, dean of engineering at North Carolina A&T, which prides itself on its long history of producing black engineers. About 43 percent of this year's 147 graduating seniors are women.
''It's just a warm, open atmosphere,'' said Maranda McBride, who recently completed her doctorate in industrial engineering at North Carolina A&T after spending several years working in industry.
To industry the issue goes beyond simple equity.
''If you are going to design and sell a product you need the different perspective women bring,'' said Andy Acho, director of environmental outreach and strategy for the Ford Motor Co. and chair of the Smith engineering program's advisory board.
Having more female engineers isn't completely replacing the drop-off in white men going into engineering, however. And overall, women still make up only about 12 percent of the engineering work force.
''Women still have a long way to go,'' said Margaret Ashida, director of university relations for IBM Corp.
The gains have been primarily around the edges, and increases may be slowing, she said.
The percentage of women getting doctorates has inched up to about 17 percent. But for the past five years the percentage of women receiving master's degrees has remained around 22 percent and those receiving bachelor's degrees has hovered around 20 percent, according to annual surveys by the American Society for Engineering Education.
William Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, had no answer for why the extensive efforts haven't resulted in greater gains for women, but he suggested engineers need to promote the field's creative aspects and banish the ''dead-wrong stereotype of a nerd working on something without social relevance.''
''Lord knows we do a lot of things in engineering that are not welcoming to women and we can work on those,'' Wulf said. ''But people have to want to be an engineer first.''
However, Wulf added that schools including Smith are trying broader approaches to teaching engineering.
''Maybe, we have to look at something new,'' Wulf said.
Instead of devoting their first two years to math, Smith students are introduced early to problem solving, exposed to a variety of engineering disciplines and encouraged even required to take courses outside the technical fields.
The specialization that normally comes in the junior and senior years is left to graduate school. Smith's president, Carol T. Christ, said the program aims to give women a wider foundation so they can more easily enter management later in their careers.
''We want to develop a capacity for leadership,'' she said.
Domenico Grasso, Smith's dean of engineering, said students are also forced to confront issues of social relevance early and often.
In their first course, engineering students must design an educational tool that could be used in the local public schools. Another course, also open to non-engineering majors, examines the Brooklyn Bridge and Eiffel Tower from artistic, social and cultural perspectives as well as construction design.
Bartell said she got hooked on engineering because of that real-world connection. She said the broader approach didn't seem to stint the technical side of learning.
''Every time I went home to Texas, I'd quiz my male friends who went to the big engineering schools to see if I was getting everything they were,'' she said.
Her conclusion: ''Everything and then some.''
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