Profiles in Education:
Dean Eleanor Baum,
Cooper Union School of Engineering
Eleanor Baum, dean of Cooper Union’s engineering school, remembers it well: an African-American woman, upon receiving her diploma, said: “No one in my family will ever be on welfare again.” For Baum, that statement represents the many values of an engineering degree.
“Engineers are trained problem solvers. We use mathematics and science to improve conditions in society; to make life better for people,” Baum told Education Update in her office. And because Cooper Union offers free tuition, the degree often improves life for entire families.
Baum, 67, defied traditional expectations to become an engineer. Always a strong mathematics student, her high school guidance counselor discouraged her from pursuing engineering, and her mother worried she’d never get married. Though she admits she didn’t really know what engineers did—a problem she thinks still exists—she was determined to prove she could do it. She completed the five-year engineering program at City College in four years, by attending summer school, worked in the aerospace industry, and then earned her Ph.D in electrical engineering from Polytechnic University. As a woman, she faced continual scrutiny. “Being an engineer wasn’t usual; being a working woman wasn’t usual. I didn’t represent just me but all women. I had to work harder and perform better just to show I could do it,” she said.
When she was named dean of Pratt Institute’s engineering school in 1985, she became the nation’s first female engineering dean. At Cooper since 1997, she strives to increase the enrollment of women, now at 30% up from 3% when she arrived. As dean, she’s increased Cooper Union’s outreach to high school students through summer programs and career days, and works to promote how flexible an engineering degree can be.
“As a profession, we’ve done one miserable job explaining what we do. Everyone knows what doctors and lawyers do. We only hear about engineers when there’s a disaster, like 9/11 or a bridge collapse,” she said.
In her tenure, she’s added the English college entrance exam as an admission factor, noting that she’s “not interested in just training worker bees, quiet people who sit in the back of the lab,” but in creating technological leaders who’ll use their knowledge and social consciousness to solve world problems. Students take communications classes presented by theater professionals. Classes are small and project based, many inter-disciplinary, creating partnerships with students in different fields. Student projects address environmental and transportation problems, biomedical engineering, unconventional energy sources, replacing crumbling infrastructures, and manufacturing. Emphasis is on getting students to challenge themselves, to learn to work in teams, Baum said.
The job market for engineers is booming, she said, noting that many graduates are recruited by Wall Street, many attend medical, dental, and law schools, and about 45% go on for advanced engineering degrees. She’d love to see the enrollment of women at Cooper Union reach 50%. “Girls no longer have to feel like a pioneer to go into engineering,” she said.
Recently inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the recipient of many awards that line her office shelves, Baum’s proud of her accomplishment- “I made a decision and stuck to it when everyone told me I’d regret it,” she said. She did marry, a scientist, has two daughters, neither of whom are engineers, and two grandchildren.