Inclusion Starts With Us
Engineering educators contribute to our community’s enduring lack of diversity. We also have tools to address it.
By Michael G. Eastman, Monica L. Miles, and Randy Yerrick
Extensive research has claimed that engineering education favors white men at the exclusion of blacks, Latinx individuals, Native Americans, and women. We studied a cohort of longtime engineering educators, three women and seven men, who had elected to enroll in a Ph.D. program focused on STEM education. We soon learned that our group, like most faculty who teach in engineering programs, had little or no background in educational theory and were unaccustomed to engaging with education research. Regularly throughout the Ph.D. program, the cohort was challenged to consider diversity, accepted norms, and for whom higher education is designed.
Our research focused on developing a deep understanding of the perspectives of one white male engineering educator who was confronted with conceptions of his own privilege throughout the Ph.D. program. Roger (a pseudonym) had been a faculty member at a teaching-focused university for nearly 30 years when he enrolled in the Ph.D. program at a research-intensive university. We leveraged this unique circumstance to use ethnographic tools to follow him through four years of a doctoral program that challenged his thinking related to diversity, inclusion, and the culture of engineering education. Not only could we review his written reflections on educational theory, pedagogical strategies, and education research, but we also were able to interview Roger both formally and informally and to observe him in his first attempts to teach using inquiry-based strategies.
Early in the Ph.D. program, Roger shared with us his perspective that he believed in treating all students equally. Other faculty used similar terms, such as “I don’t see color; all students are the same to me.” Roger also said that he believed all students had the same level of opportunity to succeed in his classroom. Through readings and discussions in the Ph.D. program, doctoral faculty asserted that Roger and his colleagues were privileged and that their privilege had influenced their achievements. Despite the consistent and regular challenges, Roger continued to resist the notion that he was privileged.
For Roger, listening intently to the narratives of the black, urban college students he interviewed for a research project initiated a deeply personal reflection on his own family’s situation. His son had taken Advanced Placement courses at a highly ranked high school. Those experiences stood in stark contrast with the struggles of Roger’s project participants, including under-resourced schools, teacher upheaval, and an overall dearth of academic opportunity in the local school district. The research project coincided with his son being offered, and able to afford, an unfunded research position as an undergraduate. This juxtaposition set the stage for Roger to recognize that privilege had indeed played a significant role in his life, and illuminated for us the potency of deeply rooted personal perceptions.
Our country is currently engaged in wide-ranging conversations regarding race, privilege, and opportunity. Our college campuses represent perfect venues to refine those conversations as well as to explore and question established norms through civil discourse and shared purpose. Our engineering communities on those campuses should welcome the chance to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask how we can help those reflections become accurate representations of the larger population.
While a broad base of engineering faculty engages with education research, our various interactions with educators lead us to believe that Roger’s story is representative of the beliefs and biases of the engineering education community at large. How can we thoughtfully consider not only that we may be part of the problem but, more important, that we must be part of the solution? How can we get more faculty to consider alternative teaching methodologies that have been shown to support a diverse body of learners? Current research offers hope that we can indeed create classrooms that are more inclusive, more equitable, and more effective. A grass-roots effort from committed educators willing to promote and argue for more effective learning environments and administrators committed to achieving retention and graduation goals for all students could help make engineering education more welcoming and more effective for all students.
Michael G. Eastman is an associate dean and professor in the College of Engineering Technology at Rochester Institute of Technology. Monica L. Miles is a coastal literacy specialist in the New York Sea Grant program at Cornell University. Randy Yerrick is an associate dean and professor in the University at Buffalo’s Graduate School of Education. This article was adapted from “Exploring the White and Male Culture: Investigating Individual Notions of Equity and Privilege in Engineering Education” in the October 2019 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education.