First Female Mechanical Engineering Grad Reflects on Time at Michigan Tech

Immediately following World War II and as the Cold War was beginning, Marian “Smitty” Smith became the first female mechanical engineering graduate at Michigan Tech. The year was 1948.

Seventy-five years later, Marian Smith Scott is 95 years old living in Gaylord, MI.

After completing junior college in 1946, Marian chose to continue her education at Michigan Tech. Given her strength in math, she thought engineering was a good path for her. “I understood that engineering required a lot of math, so I decided on mechanical,” she said. “I have to admit… I really didn’t know what engineering was!”

When Marian Smith started at Tech, she recalls there being around 400 students—only 20 of whom were women. Enrollment blossomed after World War II bringing the total to 1,789 students at the Houghton branch (and 384 in Sault Ste. Marie). While there were few women before her who graduated with different degrees, only three others were pursuing mechanical engineering. Since they were younger than her, Marian, who was well known by the nickname “Smitty”, rarely had any other women in her classes. Despite facing challenges and discrimination during her time as a student, Marian never lost sight of her goal.

One professor was particularly challenging, believing that women didn’t belong in engineering. As Marian explained, “I distinctly remember our professor giving us a quiz with three questions. I got the final answer correct but forgot to do the last step on the third question. The guy next to me didn’t even answer it, and he got a better score than me. That really irked me! I still ended up with a B in the class. I should have had an A, but he couldn’t do anything to give me less than a B and that made me happy.”

Having 40 hours of class each week and homework didn’t leave much time for hobbies, but “Smitty” still managed to have some fun. A member of Alpha Phi Omega, there were many formal parties and dances, so she was always busy sewing another new dress. She fondly recalls watching a young man sprint towards her from across campus to ask her to go on a date with him to a dance that was a month away. “There weren’t many women there. You had to get your dates early!” She also met her future husband Bill Scott at Tech, who graduated at the same time with the same degree. Three months after graduation, the two were engaged.

After graduating from Tech, Scott started her career at General Motors. She later became an editor for Design News—a technical magazine. After Design News moved to Denver, Scott secured a job at Bendix (now known as Allied Signal, Inc.) where she became the first female to have a supervisor role outside of the factory. “It might have been a big deal,” she said, “but nobody made anything of it. They didn’t give me much more money!”

“When I got out of school, people didn’t really believe that I had an engineering degree,” Scott said when asked about the public perception of a woman in engineering at the time. “People would still ask me silly questions like what you would get in 12th grade physics. Many of the employers were skeptical, which wasn’t very fair.” She continued, “I think some people thought I had two heads. But I got a job, and I did the job.”

Marian “Smitty” Scott encourages all women in engineering to be confident and know that they are as good and as capable as the men in the same field.

“I’ve always felt my decision to go to Michigan Tech was a good one,” she said. “I went back for my 50th reunion in 1998, and I saw the improvements they made. I wished I were going to school then! It was, and is, a very good school.”

17 responses to “First Female Mechanical Engineering Grad Reflects on Time at Michigan Tech

  1. I’m proud of you Marion for persevering! Yes, we are very capable in any profession. Thank you for showing the way.

  2. Hats off to you Smitty for daring to blaze the trail! My sister Anna graduated in ME in ’59 and had some tough sledding as a woman in the field, as well. I got out in ’64 in Chem. E.

  3. Good on you, Smitty!

    I was a bit behind you and as a male, was in the majority at my time at “Da Tech.” In the early 60’s, MTU had about 3,000 students, only 100 of them were female. When I was graduating from high school, I sent out a bunch of applications. My family lived in Evanston, IL, and I could have lived at home and gone to Northwestern. Way to pricey.

    I had a few other offers, but got the nicest acceptance letter from MTU. Not to mention, their total cost was lower than the other offers. Thus, Tech. And you know, my education at Tech seems to have done me well over my 50 year engineering career. I always wanted to be a builder, and I ended up overseeing construction of highways, bridges, treatment plants, sewers, etc. And on every project, I had times when I had to dig back into the Tech education to deal with project problems.

    You, as a mechanical, will appreciate the following: I got involved in my first sewage treatment plant as your basic dirt, concrete and steel Civil Engineer. I early on found out I had to dust off books I hadn’t looked at since college: Mechanical, plumbing, HVAC, electrical, etc. Not to mention, biology, open channel flow, operations and maintenance. A real eye opener that was. After a while, I found that the yard of concrete I poured today might affect the way the plant would work three years later.

    To wrap up, Da Tech done good by me!! If you want to chit chat, use my email address below.

    Robert Bunce
    BSCE 1964

    1. Hi Bob,
      I’m assuming this is the Bob Bunce I knew at the MCRC? This is Keith Graboske, retired from MCPWO since 2018. Were you at reunion this year? I was and at one of the places/events me and my Tech friend were at, remember seeing somebody that looked familiar that I couldn’t place. If you were there, I’m thinking it could’ve been you.
      My email is

      Nice typing atcha’!


  4. Wishing to motor mouth further:

    It is highly interesting to me that today’s Tech folks, in addition to being students and professors, also are involved in developing products and processes that have been commercialized and are part of our everyday live.

    At one point, I had to take the Hydraulics course. This also involved working in the Tech hydraulic lab, doing a project and producing a report. At the time, there was this huge standpipe for water. Every experiment we did revolved around “how much water did we use.” The method of measurement was a block of wood attached to a tape measure. As you performed an experiment, you measured the water level at the start, water level at the end, and the difference was water used. Plugging in time gave you gallons per minute.

    This was pretty ancient technology. We though you should be able to use some electrical property to handle the water levels and do away with the tape measure. Well… our concept didn’t work. We Civils should have got some electricals involved.

    Keep in mind that for years the concept of a float moving up and down handled water levels, flow amounts, etc. Years later, on one of my sewage treatment projects, we had some new instrumentation. A level sensor that measured, of all things, “capacitive reactance.” It gave you water levels, and based on the installation, flow rates. Our concept, except we weren’t smart enough to pull it off.

    Likewise, the class on computers. This is back in the punch card computer era. I came up with a program to calculate the size of a concrete beam based on the loads and the length. Right out of design cookbooks. After the Tech computer guy cleaned it up, it worked. Today there are a dozen programs that do exactly that, albeit with far more bells and whistles.

    At the time, the bottom line to all of this was take the course, touch the base, do what is needed. Nobody was thinking big enough.

    1. Hey, Bob! Years after graduation, while working at Honeywell Systems & Research, I devised a capacitance-based water level sensor. It was disguised as a reed. Its purpose was to detect passage of metal-free wooden sampans in the MeKong delta by detecting their wakes. Then the war ended so nothing came of it. However, I still remember how to play Floyd Cramer’s “On The Rebound” that you taught me!

  5. Thank you for sharing your story it was pretty similar to some of my experiences years later as a female of color engineer. Unfortunately I had the same problem with professors in the early 1990s giving me grades that I did not earn but what they thought I desired. My peers with get A and I was given Ds & Fs although my work was correct. Some of the professors were bold enough to tell me you will never pass my class no matter what you do, which they made sure. Employers tried to use the GPA as a point to not hire me or justification to pay me well below fair market rate. I ended up leaving engineering going into to IT with a masters degree, so I could get away from my past experience with the professors that was ultimate impacting my career and if the path continued my social security when I retired.

    They were good experiences with my mentor, friends, AFROTC, and neighbors. I remember Jack and Daniel that were upper classmen neighbors they took us smelt dipping, helped us with our homework, and provided many more positive experiences. I do not have their last names or I would try to find them. Many of the negative experiences with the professors overshadow the good experiences for many years until I moved on into another career without the baggage.

  6. Your story reminded me about how I got my degree in mechanical engineering. I also was good at math in high school and the Russians had just sent up Sputnik so everyone said I should become an engineer. I didn’t realize there were several options in engineering. So, because my Dad was a foreman at a machine shop I chose mechanical engineering. Class of “

  7. Thanks for setting the path for all the women Engineering students who have come to Tech and earned their degrees.

    And if you ever want to visit with them, let me know.

  8. Thank you for carving a trail for us, Smitty! I am a 200 grad with a civil engineering degree from MTU. I respect your hard work and perseverance. Over the years, I have been the only female in the room in project meetings. I have seen that shift somewhat, and that has been encouraging for the young female engineers entering the field.

  9. I got a computer science degree from Tech in 1988 and was able to get a job with NASA. If you would have told me that I would be working for NASA when I first started Tech, I would not have believed you. When I went to Tech the ratio was four guys to every girl. I was glad that I went to Tech, but I will say I struggled in my computer science classes because I didn’t have my own computer and I only had experience with an Apple IIe I used for one semester in high school. I am glad that Tech helps their students understand what a computer science career can be like just like they do for engineering. Thanks for being the trailblazer for those of us who came after you. I would not have been able to work for NASA without the education I received at Tech.

  10. Thank Smitty for being a pragmatic pioneer. My MTU Mechanical Engineering degree has served as a great foundation. Loved being part of Class of 2000.

  11. Awesome work! You were a trail blazer for women! You probably had classes with my Uncle. He went to M.T. After the war, got an engineering degree and worked for Ford.

  12. I was the first and only graduate in 1963 with a B.S. in the newly formed Biological Science program. Dr. James Spain was instrumental in this, both starting the program and helping me attain the credits needed to complete the requirements for this new degree. At that time there were only about 25 female students at Tech. Last I knew he was still living in Houghton. Susan Cross Yonker, Frankenmuth, Mi

  13. I’m coming from a different angle. Congrats to Tech for its encouraging women!! I was a h.s. guidance counselor in Syracuse, NY area who received brochures about the summer programs they were running in the 70s/80s for girls to come spend a week on campus in Houghton and learn about careers in engineering. I encouraged a girl to attend. She loved it and went on into engineering (but not at Tech–too far.) She did take bus out for week and her parents drove out to pick her up and see sites on route home.

  14. Michigan Tech was and is an outstanding engineering school. I earned a degree in Mining Engineering in 1958
    Dr. Bean was my advisor and I worked my butt of.
    It was a memorable experience, the first coed university I attended. Go Huskis. And Thanks.

  15. I am impressed! Although, I am a man but I am greatly encouraged by your strength and perseverance in the face of challenges. I have a strong desire to join Michigan Tech and I pray they give me the opportunity to prove what I am worth like you, Marian. Stay strong for me to meet you. Wow! Thank you.

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