Engineering at Nebraska, Spring 2007
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Educators Must Impart Engineering Mindset

I just received my copy of Engineering@ Nebraska. This is a response to the feature about women in engineering.

Engineering at Nebraska, Where are the Women?For the record, I graduated with a BSEE in ’58, spent a career at General Electric (my division of which morphed into Lockheed Martin) in the aerospace field and am currently retired and residing in West Chester, Pa., where we’ve lived for 40 years. (I worked in King of Prussia.)

I happen to subscribe to Science magazine and a perennial issue is how to increase the numbers of women in science and promote more to levels of management and leadership. I also frequently give the staff and columnists at the Philadelphia Inquirer (newspaper) the “benefit” of my critiques of their commentary (not often appreciated). You might be wondering how these two things are related. I’ll explain.

My first three years with GE were on what was called the engineering program. Along with rotating work assignments it consisted of weekly lectures over a wide range of technical subjects followed with an engineering problem that we were required to work and report on the next week. The format of the report was prescribed. Part one was problem definition. Part two was assumptions. Part three was problem approach. Part four was analysis. Part five was discussion of results. In other words, it was the structure of problem solving. Most of my comments to the Inquirer staff and columnists concern the abysmal facility many of the so-called solons of pontification (not a few associate professors of this or that and think tank advocates) to think and analyze perceptively and objectively. Often (usually?) their terms are ill-defined and objectives not clearly articulated.

My point is that education in science and engineering teaches one how to think, how to rely on evidence and fact, and also to recognize essential uncertainty and take that into account and the necessity for well thought-out planning. These things apply, or should apply, to issues of all sorts, not just to technical problems. In order to have a career in science and engineering one must, of course, have an aptitude for the mathematical and technical. However, I suggest that in recruiting efforts there needs to be more attention given to the merits of learning how to think and solve problems. This, of course, applies to males as well as females, but the females are more likely to be put off by the geek/nerd images that too often are the ones projected.

The thought goes through my head that perhaps we should be less concerned with trying to lure women into science and engineering fields and more about imparting the mental discipline that science and engineering has to offer into other fields that women find attractive. I don’t know what today’s curricula have to offer but some efforts at hybridization seminars, so to speak, both to college and high school students might be something to think about. They might even change some minds.

—Clay W. Crites, ’58, West Chester, Pa.