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How to reengineer an engineering major at a women's college

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Ellis has done much to shape those methods. He draws on his experience teaching high school physics to bring the fun factor into his classes, for one. He has students use motion-graphing sensors to gain a deeper understanding of functions and derivatives, key building blocks in calculus. In a January math-skills class, six first- and second-year students came alive using these tools. It was a rare teaching appearance for him this year, as he's taking his first sabbatical in a 20-year career.

He encouraged the diverse group to "play around" as they graphed how their distance from the sensor changed over short bursts of time. Anna Lorenz amused the class as she tried a moonwalk to keep her line as straight as possible. "That's a Smith first!" Ellis declared gleefully.

For 2-1/2 hours the young women worked through problems in pairs as Ellis circulated, raising questions and at times folding his tall frame into a squat so he'd be eye to eye with seated students. His encouraging comments – "That's beautiful!" in response to a graph – lightened the mood.

At the end of class, he told first-year student Salma Mehter, "We want people like you in engineering." She had mentioned she was considering majoring in it, and agreed this class made her more confident.

Coach more, lecture less

When he first arrived at Smith, Ellis had to break some habits he'd formed as a student and professor in the crucible of more-traditional engineering.

"I did some things that were horribly wrong in terms of education methods," he says with the laughter of hindsight. "I would cold-call on students.... Everywhere else I'd been, no one ever called me intimidating ... but I got feedback from my [Smith] students saying my class was scary."

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