Keep an Eye on the Goal
Our differences shrink in the face of challenges we must address together.
By Kenneth Burbank
In this new column, I have been asked to provide an alternate perspective on ASEE and its role in education for the engineering profession. Instead of focusing on the differences between engineering technology and engineering education, let’s begin with the end in mind. What is it we want for our students, graduates, and our engineering profession?
One place to start the dialogue is by looking at diversity. We talk, strategize, act, and react to this topic. What do we want from diversity?
Let’s go a little deeper. Over my years in the classroom, I have heard my students say that they hear statements like these:
“You are only smart enough to get a factory job.”
“Your skin is so dark that you will never get a good (husband, wife, job).”
“Engineering is for (boys, nerds, white people).”
And these judgments are delivered by parents to their children—inside a family. We all know that the message on TV is far worse.
In our classrooms, we have a diversity of skin tones, body sizes, and countries of birth—things that the students did not choose and cannot change. We like to count and categorize these differences, change policies and procedures to influence the distribution, and make sure that one of each type is included in our marketing pieces—all actions that ensure that the differences are institutionalized and perpetuated.
We also have a classroom full of fears, hurts, and egos. This is diversity we can address. And this is where inclusion can begin.
We say we want diversity to bring new perspectives to solve our problems. Many companies realize the value of fresh eyes. We have improved car interiors that are safer for children and more user friendly for parents. We have computer mice to avoid carpal tunnel injuries, helmets for ordinary sports activities, porous surfaces for parking areas, and rooftop gardens.
We have lowered the barriers to inventors and entrepreneurs so the products “as seen on TV” improve our cooking and our waistlines, enable us to reach high places, and see anyone approaching the house. We have better pillows and frying pans, and each new phone brings us closer to nirvana. If consumer products are an indicator, then diversity is working.
The ongoing social unrest says otherwise. Consumer-based diversity is based on “I welcome other people as long as they think like me.” Our social groups remain intact as we market to each other. New groups may form based on new norms, especially within each new generation. Politicians and the media exploit the unrest to gain profit and power. The overall system remains static.
We have more people wanting to work than we have meaningful jobs. By meaningful, I mean a job that is more than a source of money, one that can instill a sense of pride in an accomplishment, and that provides a means to enable growth as a human being.
The National Academy of Engineering’s list of grand challenges is a reminder that we still have much to do in this world. How do we connect these ongoing needs to meaningful work? How do we get to the point where each of us can bring our whole self to this meaningful work? How do we allow ourselves to grow and remain connected? And as educators, how do we bring this grander inclusivity into a classroom?
So, what do we really want from diversity? What do we want in our hearts, as opposed to what our institutional forms list as options? From the front of a classroom, we hold a magic wand as we create the learning environment each day. The desired student outcome? We want our graduates to be self-directed learners, self-confident teammates, self-sufficient humans, and contributors to a profession ready to solve the open-ended problems of our world, with grace and kindness.
We want our graduates to know that we are all on one Earth, together.
Kenneth Burbank , past chair of ASEE’s Engineering Technology Council, is professor and head of the School of Engineering Technology at Purdue Polytechnic.