In 1943, Iowa State joined an ambitious project called the Curtiss-Wright Program. The ten-month program was conceived as a wartime measure by the Curtiss-Wright company because they were experiencing of a shortage of engineers. Seven universities and colleges, including Iowa State, joined together to train approximately seven hundred women—about one hundred at each institution—to work as engineers at aircraft manufacturing plants across the country. These women, according to one report, were venturing “into a world formerly occupied by men.”
The entrance of women into a male-dominated world brought about serious debate regarding the place of women in American society. According to one newspaper article, there were two different groups circulating their opinions on the Iowa State campus. The first group “scoffed at [the] plan of training girls in engineering who had formerly majored in fields ranging from dietetics to psychology, from art to chemistry.” The other group “maintained that girls could be given a concentrated engineering course and retain enough to become efficient engineers in aircraft plants.” Despite the first group's protests, the program began in early 1943.
During the first year at Iowa State, ninety-seven women enrolled in the program. To be eligible for the program, the cadets had to have completed at least two years of regular college work, including two years of mathematics. They lived on the three upper floors of the Memorial Union. Each day, they arose at 6:45 am and had a five-hour class in the morning and a four-hour class in the afternoon. W. C. Nelson, head of the Aeronautical Engineering Department, directed the program at Iowa State. He divided the ten-month program into two five-month sections.
Curitss-Wright Cadets in Class, ca. 1944
The Curtiss-Wright Cadets became exposed to an entirely new world of knowledge when they began to take classes at Iowa State. They took courses in engineering mathematics, aircraft terminology, theory of flight, aircraft structure and analysis, and properties and processing of aircraft materials testing. They learned about detail design, stress analysis, and lofting techniques. The women received thirty hours of classroom work each week as well as ten hours of supervised study. In addition, some courses included built-in practical lab work. Properties of aircraft materials, for example, included four lab hours each week. They even studied in the Engineering Library on campus, a location formerly utilized only by men.
Upon completion of the course in December 1943, the women immediately graduated and were sent to Curtiss-Wright plants across the country. They were employed in engineering designing, elementary stress analysis, and weight control, and as shop liasons and assistants to project engineers.