Why Outward Bound for Engineers?
The brainchild of Dean Eleanor Baum and Dr. Judith Lyczko, Cooper Union's collaboration with Outward Bound, one of its partners in the School for the Physical City, came into being in summer 1995 with discussions between the two on leadership training and "hands-on" physical skills for women engineers.
Baum -- a national leader in engineering education and the advancement of women in science and technology -- was determined to create a program that would give women engineers the confidence they needed to succeed in a male-dominated field. Lyczko was discussing a proposal with long-time corporate supporter Consolidated Edison of New York, who had always been supportive of the engineering school's programs for women in engineering that focused on professional and workplace issues.
Both Baum and Lyczko were familiar with the research on women scientists and engineers that noted what has commonly come to be called the "tinkering deficit" in the early education of women. Boys simply handle more tools, throw more balls, construct more Lego bridges, build more block towers, and tinker more with simple mechanical objects than do girls. By the teen years, the areas of largest male advantage are physics, chemistry, earth science, and space science.
Other studies, including first-hand experience, documented for them that female students were called on less in class than male students, women were assigned the note-taking tasks while men were given the "hands-on" lab tasks, male professors and technicians almost solely used analogies to cars and sports in class and lab, professional discrimination harassment persisted, and assertive women continued to be deemed unfeminine. Studies also showed that men and women had very different reactions to failing a test -- men blamed the material or the professor, and women blamed themselves.
Baum's concern was to create a supportive, non-threatening environment for women engineers and to provide them with the tools they needed to increase their self-esteem and confidence. Developing women's technical and physical abilities, improving leadership and communications skills, and emphasizing teamwork was essential. Lyczko felt that Outward Bound might be interested in collaborating with Cooper Union.
Outward Bound's concept of "experiential learning" is based on the belief that people learn best by doing. The central organizing pedagogical principle of expeditionary learning is making education an adventure and learning a personal discovery. Expeditionary learning structures a student's experiences so they become active participants in acquiring knowledge, developing skills, and solving problems.
In the fall of 1995, Lyczko met with Tiffany Bluemle and Bill Abelow, Outward Bound's development director and associate director, respectively. The three felt certain that Outward Bound could customize their activities to the engineering school's goals -- "hands-on" problem-solving and gender issues -- and create a program to enhance the education of women engineers. In addition, Outward Bound's experience with corporations such as American Express, IBM, AT&T, Merck, Hewlett Packard, Xerox, Nynex, and Motoral, among others, suggested a good match.
Baum agreed to the project and Con Ed provided the funding. Further meetings with engineering faculty and students shaped the project. A two-hour trial session in the spring in Cooper Square with chemisty professor Rebecca LaRue's freshman class, led by Outward Bound's program director Al Belluche and facilitator Mary Reilly, gave faculty and staff a better understanding of Outward Bound's methods and activities.
At first, the pilot project was planned for only women engineers, but after consulting with female faculty and with Outward Bound, it was decided to include men in a novel way. In the real world, engineers are approximately 15% women and 85% men. At Cooper, there are 30% women and 70% men.
In the Outward Bound pilot, in physically challenging activities, what would happen if the percentages were reversed: 70% women and 30% men? Would the women gain in self-esteem and confidence? Would the men be willing to work with the women? Would team cooperation and group collaboration be the paradigm or would command-and-control methods take over? Hopefully, the experiment would provide some answers.
Based on faculty recommendations, 21 engineering students (15 women and 6 men) were selected, representing all the engineering disciplines and sophomore to senior years. Four engineering faculty (2 female, 2 male), one male engineering alumnus, and two female staff were recruited. The 28 participants were divided into two groups.
Four days were mapped out with Outward Bound: two days of problem-solving and trust-building initiatives, the Alpine Tower, and canoeing; and a two-day overnight with backpacking, hiking, and raft-building. Outward Bound staff, one male and one female per group, would serve as guides, safety experts, and facilitators, trained to observe, intervene, comment on, and focus discussions during and after all activities, when the participants would be debriefed and asked to discuss their experiences as individuals and as a group.  Cooper Union provided the facilitators with materials on workplace issues and research on women in engineering to acquaint them with the engineering world from which the students were coming.
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