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Apr 25, 2005

About a week and a half ago, I volunteered at the “Western Massachusetts Guidance Symposium for Engineering and Engineering Technology” at Smith College. The forum brought together engineers and guidance counselors to talk about careers in engineering. The purpose was to help the counselors better understand what engineers do. In turn, the counselors can better advise students about educational requirements and future career options in engineering.

The forum had engineering professionals and college professors from various fields including from civil engineering, electrical engineering, and biomedical engineering. I represented mechanical engineering (specifically acoustics). Also representing mechanical engineering was Professor Erich Haffner, the Chair of the Industrial Engineering Department at Western New England College.

The keynote address by Smith College Professor, Dr. Glenn Ellis, set the direction of the Symposium: encouraging women (and under-represented minorities) to chose careers in engineering. It’s a point well worth making, and it was a point that I was going to make in my discussions with counselors had Dr. Ellis not beaten me to the punch.

In short, Dr. Ellis explained that the U.S. is facing a shortage of engineers due, in part, to post 9/11 regulations that make it harder for foreigners to emigrate here to study and practice engineering. As a result, the best and brightest foreign engineering minds are going to other nations. Dr. Ellis argued that one way to overcome this shortage is to tap into an underused resource: women. Although women make up half of the U.S. population, they make up less than 15% of engineers. Frequently women that excel in math or science are steered toward the life sciences (biology, chemistry) rather than engineering, while the opposite occurs for men.

I would argue for greater inclusion of women and minorities for a different reasons: in may experience (both college and professional), diversity brings many different prospectives to engineering problems, which leads to better products and innovative solutions. People from different backgrounds bring ideas to the table that may never occur to you. Dr. Ellis briefly touched on this idea when he talked about the “Windstar Moms,” who brought family-friendly ideas to Ford’s Windstar minivans (the linked article mentions that GM “has no formal process for ensuring that the woman’s viewpoint is reflected” in the design of its minivans - no wonder their minivans all suck).

The ultimate lesson is that if your business depends on innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, you need a wide-range of viewpoints. Diversity is an easy solution to that problem. And if you don’t agree with me? Good - I’m trying to grab as many ideas as I can, and if your beliefs hinder your ability to compete, that makes my life easier.

By the way, when I speak about diversity, I’m not talking about a token women or a token black guy. I mean diversity in it’s truest sense: different socio-economic backgrounds, political beliefs, sexual orientations, religions, races, and so on. Everyone has something to offer.

In any event, I’d like to congratulate Christine, Melissa and the whole PowerUP!/MOS gang for organizing a great forum.

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A couple of weeks ago I mentioned Matt Bartlett’s mechanical design project, and I made a comment that his measurements may have been misleading because of the dipole response of the Linaeum tweeter. Turns out the Matt had already made the same observation in his report and I missed it. Sorry Matt!

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