Interview: Amy Smith, Inventor

Amy Smith, a practitioner of humanitarian engineering, wants to solve everyday problems for rural families in the developing world.

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You’ve said that engineering schools focus too much on defense and consumer electronics—what changes would you like to see in the way engineering is taught?

It would be great if students recognized that engineering with a humanitarian focus is as legitimate as aerospace and automotive engineering. Service learning is actually a very good way to teach engineering, because it motivates students to continue, and it appeals especially to women and minorities.

You are a woman in what is still a male-dominated field. What can we do to encourage more women to become engineers?

Actually, because my class involves humanitarian engineering, I very rarely have more men than women. There have been times where there have been ten women and one man. This isn't surprising, given that women often want to see an application to what they're learning that they feel is worthwhile. But I'm not involved in any particular projects to encourage women engineers, because I dislike being referred to as a woman engineer. I don't like programs that single out woman engineers as particular achievers just for being women. I think that it should be coincidental. What we should be striving for is a world where when we see women or minorities who are high achievers, it isn't surprising. We shouldn't be thinking, "Good for them!" just because of their race or gender. I think we're a long, long way from that, but I don't think we should keep implying that there's something special about being a woman engineer. I want people who meet me to say, "I like the work that you're doing." I want to be known as an engineer who designs solutions for the developing world. After that people can notice that I'm a woman.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing about cities, science, the environment, art and education. A longtime Smithsonian contributor, her work also appears in CityLab and the Boston Globe.

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