Taking Action

Four Steps to Greater Equity in STEM Education

The following four suggestions derive from my study of attempts to both exclude and include various groups of people from and in American engineering programs, professional societies, jobs, and other settings in which engineers gather and determine their professional goals and standards.  For a broader discussion, see Race, Rigor and Selectivity in U.S. Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line.

1) Expand our ideas about the sorts of character traits and educational background that may produce a successful engineer.

Virtually every effort at diversifying engineering has called for greater openness in determining eligibility for entrance into the university. In the words of John Brooks Slaughter, the former director of the National Science Foundation, however, “observable potential” by and large remains a very narrow category for those seeking to include underrepresented groups in engineering. Few students who have failed to present conventional attainments (say, those with low SAT scores) appear to be good risks, in large part because existing post-secondary curricula would not support their educational attainment. If however, we link widened eligibility standards to institutional change, the pool of promising applicants expands greatly. We should therefore recognize that:

•    Existing recruitment and admissions processes treat students as “input” and do little to address the ways that conventional curricular content limits opportunity;
•    Remedial coursework and lengthened curricula may support success among “underprepared” enrollees;
•    Formal learning communities and other collective experiences reduce the marginalization of minority students and encourage retention through student-to-student and student-to-instructor communication;
•    As long as we treat diversity as a “special function” of the university, rather than an integrated part of the institution’s mission, such reforms will appear to be optional in times of cost-cutting.

2) Reconfigure reward systems from top to bottom.

Well-meaning individuals in higher education have attempted to increase minority participation in STEM fields for decades. They have faced many obstacles, however, in the institutional reward-system of academic careers and schools. Because recruiting and mentoring minority students appears to involve a “lowering of standards” in the university engineering department (either for incoming students or for faculty research attainments), engaging in these activities presents significant risks to academic STEM professionals. To reverse this situation, we may consider that:

•    Existing accreditation criteria for engineering programs and faculty advancement are not set in stone and may be reconfigured to reward the diversification or other social and pedagogical goals the university and discipline claim to value;
•    With new resources and expanded ideas about the pace and structure of rigorous work, we may see that optimized engineering can result from settings in which inclusive pedagogy is a priority;
•    Short of altering profession-wide standards for research, publication, tenure, and accreditation, universities might redistribute their own resources in ways that support inclusive efforts (say, by offering course release to those who are active in minority recruitment or pedagogy);
•    All faculty, not just minority faculty, should be involved in the support of minority students;
•    The maintenance of tenure-track positions will encourage the close association of pedagogical and research attainments in the academy, assuring the value of the former to the discipline

3) Demonstrate that authentic diversity can lead to new and sustainable markets for technical knowledge and products.

American corporations have pushed universities to expand the representation of women and minorities in technical fields since at least the 1960s. They have done so both to enlarge the talent pool of potential workers and to develop a workforce that appears to mirror newly globalized markets and client bases.  But corporations have not maximized their support of minority educational programming:

•    If members of diverse economic communities participate in the technical decisions of industries and governments, the interests of a wider range of consumers will be represented in those decisions. Markets for the goods and services produced in Western, technology-based industries may thus grow;
•    Engineers are people with meaningful life experiences, family heritages, and political commitments. Therefore, a diversified technical workforce may lead to expanded corporate understandings of what counts as rational design, production, and marketing to different audiences;
•    Enlisting underrepresented practitioners in corporate-supported work bears the risk of recapitulating structural inequities on a domestic and global scale. Transforming these market-centered projects into authentic social reform requires that corporations make environmental and economic equity a priority.

4) Remind all those involved in engineering teaching, research, and employment that social change has long held a place in this discipline.

All three of the preceding suggestions put social outcomes on equal footing with the material and economic functions of technical work, a move at odds with the contemporary culture of engineering teaching, planning, and research. And yet, historically, engineers have explicitly claimed social influence and reform as part of their professional work. To naturalize the place of social justice matters in engineering education, we may stress that:

•    From its earliest efforts at professionalization, American engineering has claimed a role in the shaping of national values and social conduct; such contributions are not incompatible with rigorous or economical technical practice;
•    Claim to social stewardship has historically supported the idea that those already seen as eligible for technical careers are best suited to that leadership role. We must acknowledge the exclusionary work accomplished by such associations and reshape ideas of eligibility to include all underrepresented minorities;
•    The exclusionary features of higher engineering education derive not only from historical conditions, but also from our own understandings of what counts as engineering and who counts as an engineer. We must make the familiar strange if we are to make the strange familiar

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