Engineering

Email to students at U of Houston about body odor raises concerns about how to broach this delicate topic, if at all

Professor's email at U of Houston about body odor, referencing some cultures, raises concerns about how to broach this delicate topic, if at all.

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Cornell Tech officially opens campus on New York City's Roosevelt Island

Almost seven years after winning high-profile competition, Cornell Tech opens on Roosevelt Island, with 30 faculty members and almost 300 graduate students.

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Faculty members criticize proposed changes to gen ed accreditation standards for engineers

Critics say proposed changes to accreditation standards for general education dilute the competencies that give U.S.-trained students a competitive edge. Accreditor, meanwhile, says new standards will lead to easier assessment of outcomes and more innovation in teaching.

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Calif. city brings search for engineering school to ACE meeting

A California city makes a pitch for a new engineering campus at the American Council on Education's annual meeting.

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Senate bill hopes to speed up technology licensing process

Commercialization offices are fighting a Kauffman proposal that would let researchers take potential commercial ideas to any technology transfer partner, not just their home institution.

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Technion role in New York competition a win for Israeli science

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Technion's partnership with Cornell and the pair's planned New York City campus could signal new era for Israeli universities and more prominence for Israeli science.

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Diversity, equity and inclusion should be required in engineering schools' curricula (opinion)

In technical fields, we often pride ourselves on our objectivity -- as though the work exists outside ourselves. In engineering, we have historically believed that we could make technologies that work for anyone, regardless of the identity of the engineer or the user. We have believed that technological progress was inherently making the world a better place.

And, in many ways, it has. From the wheel to the automobile, the printing press to the internet, eyeglasses to orbiting telescopes, engineering has expanded humanity’s horizons and improved the human condition. But it has become clear that such technologies and systems do not benefit everyone equally. At times, they can even actively harm some groups. Unintended consequences can occur, because engineers are people, too -- people shaped by their cultures, with biases and blind spots.

That’s why, earlier this year, I joined fellow engineering deans in submitting a letter to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology recommending that they add diversity, equity and inclusion requirements for accreditation of engineering programs. Engineering must provide deep technical training, yes. But it must also require nontechnical training in fields such as ethics, social science, the humanities, history and matters associated with equity.

Baked-In Biases

Indeed, engineering technologies and systems have transformed society in many ways. We have seen this recently in the many aspects of life that were able to continue through pandemic lockdowns -- yet we also saw great inequity in who was able to work from home or access virtual school.

In fact, sometimes inequity is built into the product. Women are 17 percent more likely than men to die in a car crash and 73 percent more likely to be seriously injured. Why? In part because crash-test dummies are modeled on men. Similarly, algorithms keep poor people out of jobs and housing and lead to Black people being held in police custody because they were wrongly identified by a system optimized to recognize features of light-skinned faces. And designs for autonomous vehicles, often touted as having vast potential to increase mobility for people with disabilities, leave their needs out of most prototypes.

Technologies have also inadvertently played a role in widening the gap between the haves and have-nots. Engineered tools have led to improvements in productivity that helped to either entrench or exacerbate income inequality -- limiting opportunities for some while increasing them for others. By many estimates, wages for the bottom 90 percent of earners have not kept pace with U.S. economic growth.

Part of the problem is that engineering teams tend to represent just small swaths of society. Recent reports make clear that they often don’t include women or people from historically excluded groups. Of the nearly 1.7 million prime-age engineering workers in the United States in 2019, 81 percent were either white or Asian, and 84 percent were men, according to the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. And while the unemployment rate for scientists and engineers over all is lower than it is for the U.S. labor force in aggregate, that doesn’t hold true for engineers and scientists with one or more disabilities. For that group, unemployment is higher than the national rate, the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics has found.

In addition to considering diversity within the ranks of engineering companies, there is a powerful opportunity in advocating for more diverse supply chains as well, enabling small firms to establish themselves in competition with the big players. Many leading companies have supplier diversity programs, and Intel recently announced $500 million it plans to put toward companies led by women and historically excluded groups.

Engineering can make the world a better place. But to do that in the broadest way possible, we must think differently about what engineering is and whom it’s for. We can do that by approaching our work through an equity-centered lens. Equity-centered engineering, like its cousin, equity-centered design, strives to intentionally close societal gaps rather than unintentionally expand them.

Equity-Centered Engineering Is Foundational

It starts with education. My colleagues and I are calling on the accrediting body of our field to require diversity, equity and inclusion education in engineering school, and at Michigan Engineering, we’re not waiting to be told. For the past two years, we’ve been incorporating an equity-based framework into our undergraduate curriculum and defining experiential learning objectives that include empathy, ethics and cultural awareness. We recently approved new plans to educate the entire College of Engineering community of students, staff and faculty on diversity, equity and inclusion -- starting with a focus on race, ethnicity and bias.

Perhaps the most impactful part of the new education effort will be in the undergraduate curriculum, as we graduate more than 2,000 students per year. We’re developing a new course for all of our undergraduates that will examine diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM, its historical context and societal impact. We’re also integrating content on diversity, equity and inclusion into existing technical coursework where it’s appropriate, because we believe this knowledge is vital to both excellence and ethics in engineering practice.

We are taking these steps because, frankly, we need to require more of our engineers. Society demands rigor in engineered systems, so it goes without saying that technical acumen is a hallmark of engineering education. But engineering is a people-first field. We do not make or use technology in a way that is separate from the culture and society we are part of. We need to teach that in required engineering coursework, threaded throughout the academic experience, as a practical means of addressing or preventing social problems that materially affect the field and society at large.

Engineers must understand how their individual biases and those of the field influence engineering practice and how to counteract those biases. They need to know how to work in diverse and inclusive teams, and why that’s valuable as they advance in their careers. They must learn how to step back from engineering’s conventionally technocratic frame and to respectfully engage with and learn from stakeholders. And they must hold themselves and each other accountable to root out biased or toxic behaviors that perpetuate environments that cause harm.

Without this broader educational foundation, tomorrow’s engineers run the risk of exacerbating the societal wedges we see today. To stay on our field’s current path is to accept that, and to choose that outcome.

Rethinking the Engineer’s Role

From the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, we have an opportunity to rethink the role of engineering in society. Our actions will help determine how the rise of ubiquitous computing and advanced automation affects communities and workers, and all of us.

So we must think carefully about the questions we ask, and whose problems we choose to solve. What if, from day one, engineers were trained that it’s their responsibility to inquire about the impacts that technologies will have on people, the planet and future generations? What if they were taught to explore, from the outset, what a product’s supply chain would look like, how it would be manufactured and whether its components could be recycled? What if engineering teams included not only people who could ask about those impacts from all angles, but also leaders who were prepared to step back from the status quo and demand answers?

In addition to the moral grounds for change, there’s also a business case. Recent years have seen the rise of environmental, social and governance, or ESG, practices, which have proven to be important to a growing number of socially responsible investors. Engineers who understand these factors will be increasingly valuable in the marketplace.

If all engineers had these additional core competencies, not only could we see diversity blossom in the field in the coming decade, not only would we create the kind of engineers that society is asking for, but we could also move toward surmounting what is perhaps the grandest challenge: ensuring a more equitable future.

Alec D. Gallimore is dean of engineering at the University of Michigan.

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Tips for how to replicate the experiential learning of labs and field research in virtual classes (opinion)

Teaching Today

Alexis R. Abramson, an engineering dean, provides advice on how to replicate the experiential learning of labs, group projects and field research in virtual and hybrid classes.

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Recommendations for making STEM education more diverse (opinion)

For decades, researchers have tried to boost the very low success rates of first-generation, low-income and underserved minority students in STEM education in college. Yet while more students from these groups have been entering colleges and pursuing STEM majors, the vast majority still are not earning STEM degrees. According to recent statistics, only 29 percent of Latinx students, 25 percent of Native American students and 22 percent of black students complete a STEM degree within six years.

Those students keep dropping out of STEM fields at a discouragingly high rate despite the fact many colleges and universities -- as well as foundations and national organizations -- have gone out of their way to fund and develop programs specifically to improve the retention of first-gen, low-income and underserved minority students in STEM. Campuses have experimented with a plethora of interventions, from robust summer bridge programs and first-year seminars to career counseling services and one-off workshops. Many institutions have undertaken curriculum and instructional reform, as well as offered students undergraduate research opportunities, tutoring, partnerships with learning centers and other support.

Yet attrition rates for such students remain high. Why has this challenge proved so pernicious and persistent -- despite the expensive and time-consuming efforts made to address it?

As researchers of STEM education and reform, we don’t think funding yet another high-priced program or creating a newfangled intervention will resolve the problem. In fact, we believe a solution actually already exists on our campuses -- but we’ve been blind to it because we work too much in our individual silos.

The solution is this: we need to work across units to create an integrated community of support for students. Instead of more programs and interventions, we need more connections between existing efforts -- especially between student affairs and academic affairs.

We made this discovery while studying the impact of a project called The California State University STEM Collaboratives, designed to provide immersive educational experiences to incoming STEM students on eight system campuses, with the goal to improve persistence and close achievement gaps. This project has developed integrated programs -- combining summer bridge and first-year experience programs with redesigned introductory STEM courses. It aims to bridge the traditional divides between student affairs staff and faculty members, with the goal to better support first-year STEM students both inside and outside the classroom.

For example, Humboldt State University put together Klamath Connection, a program that integrated several different initiatives: a summer immersion experience with fieldwork at the Klamath River, a first-year seminar course and linked redesigned courses in both STEM and non-STEM disciplines. The goal was to foster a sense of belonging for incoming underrepresented STEM students by helping them build relationships with peers, faculty members, administrators, the larger community around Humboldt and the natural world through the Klamath River.

The results of Klamath Connection were transformative. Not only did the program build a strong sense of belonging and community for students, it boosted student success rates significantly. Student persistence was 12 percent higher, and retention in STEM fields 14 percent higher, for students in the program compared to those in a control group.

First-gen, low-income and underrepresented minority students absolutely need support from faculty members in STEM and other academic leaders who can advise them on the right course sequences to take, help them address any gaps in educational preparation and connect them to undergraduate research, internships, field experiences and other important opportunities. But these students may be unfamiliar with college expectations, come from underresourced and inadequate high school environments, have significant work and family obligations, or need to cope with past and present trauma. They also benefit from the attention of student affairs staff members who recognize that students need validation and support in the face of these many additional hurdles.

What our research identified is the importance of academic and student affairs staff working together to develop interventions that use the knowledge that exists between both divisions and can help lead to STEM student success. Even more to the point, we found the specific support programs matter less than the integration of these programs. Linking the work of faculty members and student affairs professionals creates multiple touch points of support, strong personal and professional relationships, and an ongoing community that students can rely on as they encounter challenges. That’s something that single interventions, or even multiple disconnected interventions, typically fail to create.

At most colleges and universities, elements of first-gen and STEM student success programs are locked into separate silos that almost never connect. That means students who seek support from one unit or another end up getting only some of their needs met.

In short, our research shows that the problem of supporting first-gen, low-income and underrepresented minority groups in STEM fields is an organizational one -- not a programmatic one, as is typically assumed. Campuses need to reorganize their existing support programs and link them together -- yet few institutions have taken this important step.

The solutions to STEM student success already exist on our campuses. We just need to start working together to realize it.

Adrianna Kezar is a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California and a co-director of the Pullias Center for Higher Education. Elizabeth Holcombe is a visiting research associate at the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University Bloomington and the managing director of the VALUE Institute.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019
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An Overlooked Solution for Diversifying STEM

Author discusses his new book about women in tech industry and engineering education

Author discusses his new book about women in the technology industry and in the academic programs that could lead them there.

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