To increase diversity, engineering programs should promote overseas experiences for underrepresented minorities.
Opinion by Renetta Garrison Tull
In an era of international research collaboration and great global challenges, travel not only broadens one’s horizons. It also can challenge assumptions about progress back home. Attending the 2014 World Engineering Education Forum (WEEF) in Dubai this past December, I became acutely aware of demographics and the paucity of participants from ethnic minorities.
Despite fruitful discussions about engaging women and diverse groups with colleagues from the United States, Russia, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Britain, and Australia, I couldn’t help but notice how few attendees looked like me. In fact, people have approached me recently at international conferences because they say I’m the only woman with my (brown) skin color they’ve met who has a Ph.D. During the 2013 WEEF conference in Cartagena, Colombia, several colleagues from the local universities repeated that sentiment. One professor even brought her students to meet me, noting that they needed to see “a woman like you.”
This recurring experience made me ponder how to include a more diverse group of U.S. engineering students (and faculty) in international conferences. I was a late bloomer, attending my first international meeting in 2012 as a presenter at the Latin and Caribbean Consortium for Engineering Institutions (LACCEI) conference in Panama. In 2014, I became the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation’s “International Engagement and Broadening Participation in STEM From a Family-Friendly Perspective for Women of Color” project. This project allowed my group at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) to take an ethnically diverse delegation to last year’s LACCEI conference in Ecuador. For some, it was their first overseas experience.
Our project discussed perceived barriers to engaging in international opportunities for diverse students. Among them: Lack of awareness and exposure to research as a global enterprise, concerns about family detachment and lack of travel experience, nervousness about acceptance due to racial differences, lack of funding, and lack of mentors who encourage or offer participation at international professional meetings. The first and last barrier sound similar to the summary of the 2014 ASEE/National Academy of Engineering (NAE) workshop, “Surmounting the Barriers: Ethnic Diversity in Engineering Education.” That summary discusses the approachability of engineering as No. 6 in a list of “13 Suggestions for Change” to surmount impediments.
Approachability and accessibility for engineering students from diverse ethnic groups can be further enhanced by letting students know that not only does the United States need their input in engineering but also that the world needs the benefit of their technical contributions. Faculty can help expand their students’ global view by promoting participation in international conferences and other opportunities. Here are some suggestions: First, encourage all of your engineering students to get a passport, learn about different cultures, and explore another language. Share opportunities with your students such as the 2015 Global Student Forum at WEEF in Florence, Italy, which is facilitated by World SPEED – Student Platform for Engineering Education Development. Reach out to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, National Society of Black Engineers, and Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers to improve access, and actively mentor students through the process of developing research results, presentations, and publications with a global scope that have the potential to facilitate international collaborations.
If America’s future engineers are to tackle global grand challenges, they must know more about the world beyond the campus gates. I look forward to the day when minority participation in engineering research conferences ceases to be an anomaly, here in the United States – and abroad.
Renetta Garrison Tull is associate vice provost for graduate student development and postdoctoral affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and director of the National Science Foundation’s PROMISE: Maryland’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP). She will be attending the 2015 ASEE International Forum in Seattle and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @Renetta_Tull.