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Educated...for Life

By Joanne Silver

When they were students at WPI, both Domenico Grasso ’77 and Emily Dodd ’03 never imagined the career paths they eventually would follow. Grasso thought he would be working as an engineer—and, for a decade after receiving his master’s degree, he served as an environmental engineer for the U.S. Army. Dodd had no doubt that she would be a bilingual emergency room doctor in a large city on the East Coast. Today, both are educators in love with their jobs, thrilled at the opportunity to combine science and humanity. Grasso is dean of the College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences at the University of Vermont, where he is also a professor. Dodd teaches chemistry at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics in East Harlem. Now 50 and 25, respectively, the two WPI graduates from two generations share not only a profession, but also a fresh outlook on the future of math and science education.

On a June morning, Domenico Grasso is busy in his Burlington, Vt., office. He has recently returned from Australia, where he was setting up a collaborative program with the University of Tasmania. Closer to home, he is preparing to address the graduating class of a local high school. He wants to speak about having an effect in the world— a sentiment that gains new life coming from a man who aims to overturn traditional notions of engineering’s place in society.

It all comes down to thinking. For too long, Grasso believes, engineers have been encouraged to think in a certain way. In effect, they have been trained to be what he calls “the agents of work. They are the drones. Engineers have taken that up as a good thing.”

He continues, “I couldn’t live in this world of servitude. What I wanted was to make a difference in the world. I had to think outside the box.”

Grasso certainly has excelled in the old-fashioned version of his field—obtaining degrees in civil engineering from WPI and Purdue University, and a PhD in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan. His research has focused on the ultimate fate of contaminants in the environment, and in developing techniques to reduce the risks they pose to human health and natural resources. He has received the honor of “Pioneer in Disinfection” from the Water Environment Federation and has been invited to join boards and research teams in America and abroad.

Still, he is fascinated by multiple perspectives in learning. At Smith College—where. until last year. he was the founding director of the first engineering program at a women’s college in the United States—Grasso set out to strengthen the bridge between engineering and the human spirit. In an article de­­scribing this mission, he wrote, “After all, what is engineering?… A common misperception is that engineering is another one of the sciences. It is not. Engineering decisions rarely hinge entirely on science. Rather, engineers must also consider many other factors, such as economics, safety, accessibility, manufacturability, reliability, and sustainability…. Engineers must learn to manage and integrate a wide variety of information and knowledge to make sound decisions.”

To help teach his more holistic approach, Grasso is thinking of making a subscription to The Atlantic magazine as mandatory as a laptop for students in the UVM program. Citing the writings of Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson, he says, “One of the things we’re basing the undergraduate curriculum on is the ‘unity of knowledge.’” Grasso uses such terms as “full intellectual engagement” to describe the mind-set that will succeed in the years to come.

“We are facing a juggernaut of engineering graduates from overseas,” he asserts. “The technical stuff can be outsourced. They can do as good a job. We could be the big thinkers, the problem definers.”

Perhaps being the child of Italian immigrants gave Grasso the perspective to see things from an unusual vantage point. “I had to think outside the box because my parents couldn’t speak English,” he maintains. Grasso didn’t speak the language until kindergarten, and at 16, he served as his mother’s agent in his parents’ divorce. Now that he is in a position to help shape young people, Grasso has instituted innovations—such as appointing a “director of student success”—to support those who have embarked on the rigors of an engineering curriculum. He wants courses in the 21st century to be learner-centered, hands-on, and related to one another.

Grasso, the father of four children ages 8 to 15, understands that changing the college offerings is only part of the solution. In addition to redefining the nature of engineering studies, he also hopes to attract a different pool of students. He recalls the case of a young woman at Smith—an aspiring fashion designer from California who had signed up for his course “Designing the Future,” on the assumption that it would bolster her background. Grasso is proud to point out that the woman stayed in the course, became an engineering major, and went on to study policy at the graduate level.

In reflecting on his own education, he remembers the way in which engineers would denigrate the liberal arts as “too fluffy.” At Michigan—a school Grasso describes as having a strong liberal arts tradition—he discovered that those in the liberal arts were just as intelligent as engineers. There, he also met his wife, who was a Latin scholar as well as an engineer. A talk by one of her Latin professors reinforced Grasso’s evolving philosophy. Quoting classical texts, the Michigan professor described the diverse ways in which writings are interpreted, depending on the period and context.

“Every day and age is seeking some kind of truth,” Grasso explains. “It is different in different times. Unfortunately, engineers don’t ask those questions.” If they did, he argues, they might not simply design a particular car; they would ask whether the car is the best way to get around. Or whether it is ethical for engineers to plan New Orleans’ new levees to a standard they feel is inadequate.

“Engineers need to ask the right questions,” he insists, “not just do what people tell them.”

Science was always part of Emily Dodd’s life, even when she was too young to call it by that name. As the daughter of two WPI graduates (Charles Dodd ’74 and Anne McPartland Dodd ’75), she was surrounded by projects and activities—games with numbers, experiments growing radish seeds in different materials—that let her try something out and discover the results. In her hometown of Mont Vernon, N.H., she relished the quiet that came along with the rural setting because it allowed her to reflect and observe.

At a young age, she decided she would become an emergency room physician, to give practical use to her sense of wonder. But one night in a civil engineering lab, while working on her MQP on water treatment, a fateful online search led Dodd to stray from her plan. On Monster.com she saw a posting for a New York City teaching fellow—and she hasn’t looked back. It’s been three years since she graduated with high distinction as a biochemistry major and traded the New Hampshire countryside for the rhythms of Manhattan. “People ask me, ‘New York City and teaching—what are you doing?’” Dodd says. “I tell them, ‘Looking for an adventure.’”

“I was looking for something exciting, something I could really sink my teeth into,” she explains. “Science was something I always enjoyed. I wanted to be able to pass that on to another generation.”

That new generation is mostly 10th-graders at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics. They travel from all over the five boroughs, sometimes riding subways and buses for an hour and a half to get to the building at 116th Street and the FDR Drive, overlooking the Harlem River. Many are immigrants from Mexico, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Guyana. All are expected to take a certain sequence of courses, to attend class, to graduate on time, to go to college. According to Dodd, over 80 percent do, in fact, enroll at a two- or four-year college or pursue a military career.

Before they reach Dodd’s sophomore chemistry classes, her students have passed one year of biology, but, she says, “My basic M.O. is: If I haven’t taught it to them, they don’t know it.” Because chemistry is conducted only in English, and some kids have come out of a bilingual biology program, Dodd has to address language as well as science in her classes. If she tutors them a handful at a time, “the students get more attention, and I get to feel I’m making more of a difference,” she says. Often she will pair a weaker student with a stronger one who shares the language background, and both will benefit from the encounter.

Dodd is upbeat. In a conversation shortly before summer vacation, she says, “I have been writing recommendations for students to pursue summer programs in math and science. I would encourage many of them to pursue [careers in] math, science, and engineering. They have the skills.”

She elaborates on her instructional strategies: “You have to make science fun, make scientists seem like normal people with real lives—people you might want to be.”

“I try to tie lessons to the real world—this is why people put salt on an icy road or why they put salt in water for pasta.” She recognizes that her students’ home lives might be different from the one she knew and attempts whenever possible to find connections to their experiences.

Obstacles present themselves all too often—from a citywide transit strike to the shooting death of one student a few blocks from school. He had been having a hard time academically, but had been present in Dodd’s double-period class that afternoon. “I said, ‘Hey, glad you’re here,’” she recalls. “I was not prepared for that. I wasn’t done with him.”

The next day she told her classes, “When you leave this building, you are a part of me. You may not think of me as a mother, but you are my children. I want to see you every day.”

The rewards far outnumber the hardships for Dodd. This fall, one of her top students from her first year teaching will be going to WPI. But in order for such successes to be more common, she says, there must be changes in the system. “I am very focused on students of color,” she says. “The educational system has been serving white students well. I’d like to see more emphasis on reaching out to non-majority populations, students of color, non-native English speakers.”

She makes a plea to her fellow alumni: “I would encourage WPI grads from all walks of life to bridge the gap between science and society: donate materials to a school, tutor students, invite students to visit you at work, visit a class to talk about how science and math got you where you are today—or take the plunge and learn about becom-ing a teacher.”

For Dodd, the decision to teach has been right all along: “I feel like I’m passing on what people have given to me: Science is fun. Science is the key to understanding the world around you.”

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Last modified: Sep 28, 2006, 11:42 EDT
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