What does it mean to be literate and equitable in engineering?

What does it mean to be literate and equitable in engineering?

Monday, May 22, 2017

One of our main areas of work at STELAR is to support NSF’s initiatives to broaden participation in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce, particularly by underrepresented groups at the K-12 level.  Towards this end, my colleagues and I provide technical assistance to leaders and staff of ITEST projects, which includes sharing information about relevant resources, connecting groups of people who are working on similar topics of interest, and providing feedback on potential projects to advance the goal of creating a more diverse STEM workforce. 

Recently, I attended the Literacies in Engineering for Access and Participation conference, led by Eli Tucker-Raymond (TERC), Amy Wilson-Lopez (Utah State University), Alberto Esquinca (University of Texas at El Paso), and Alex Mejia (Angelo State University) and sponsored by the NSF ITEST program.  About 50 researchers and practitioners from around the country convened at the University of Texas at San Antonio on May 2-3, 2017, to set an agenda for research and practice towards making engineering and engineering education more equitable. 

The opening panel set the stage, showing that literacy and engineering are terms that are usually considered separately, however, were defined for this conference as they relate to knowledge of engineering and engineering practices.  Being literate about engineering is about being knowledgeable about what engineering is and what an engineer might do.  In the same way that technology literacy is about knowing how to use technology, it also implies that someone who is literate about engineering also knows “how to engineer”.  But what does it mean to engineer, or to engage in engineering practices?  And who decides who will become an engineer?  Dominant engineering practices in schools and the profession have continued to privilege certain groups, and the need to make access into the profession more equitable at all levels persists.

In school settings, many projects have been developed to expose children to engineering activities.  For example, Christine Cunningham’s (Museum of Science) Engineering is Elementary curriculum includes young characters of different nationalities to help illustrate that engineering occurs in many contexts with many different peoples.  Such experiences help students see themselves in the design process and provide them with positive interactions with the discipline at a young age, which may spark personal interest in the profession later on.

A challenge has been to maintain and convert this interest developed as a child into pursuing an engineering degree and going into the profession as one becomes a young adult.  Even though more women and minorities have enrolled in engineering degree programs in college, the number who go on to practice in the field has not changed much over several years (see Science and Engineering Indicators 2016).  Many factors might contribute to the continued leaky engineering pipeline. 

In the context of higher education, Jessica Smith and Juan Lucena (Colorado School of Mines) discussed the humanistic aspects to engineering that are minimized in engineering major courses and how underrepresented students’ funds of knowledge are strengths they bring to the practice that need to be recognized.  That is, introductory college engineering courses often focus on technical skills, such as making accurate calculations, which are often designed to deter or “weed out” students from continuing in the engineering major. 


However, engineering is more than making accurate calculations to address the problem.  Alex Mejia reminded us that, as a problem occurs in a specific place that is used for different purposes by different people, an engineer would do well to consider the perspectives of different stakeholders in the community to understand the requirements more thoroughly.  By doing so, design decisions are informed by the needs of all the people in the community it serves. 

But just how many undergraduate engineering programs include these humanistic/social justice aspects as part of their curriculum?  Louis Bucciarelli (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), author of Designing Engineers (1994), is infusing engineering into a liberal arts degree program to attract students who may not otherwise consider engineering as a major.  This and other adaptations of integrating ethical aspects into the study of the engineering discipline may help foreground social responsibility in the profession.  As well, it seemed clear that having a social network for support through challenging experiences was a significant factor in terms of whether or not someone persisted.

At the end of the conference, groups were formed to help address the many questions that remain to be answered to move the work forward.

To learn more about the conference or get involved, please email leap_conference@terc.edu.

Bernadette Sibuma brings more than a decade of experience in educational research and evaluation to the STEM Learning and Research Center.  With special expertise in cognition, instructional technologies, and human-computer interaction, Bernadette's research interests include how we can use technology to enhance science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning and how different interface designs affect cognitive processes and learning outcomes.