Addressing Social Issues

Moderator: I think we’re going to go on to the next question. This young lady has been waiting forever, so I’m going to ask her to ask her question.

Audience Member: Thank you. Borjana Mikic at Smith College. The comment I want to make goes back to Sherra’s question about problem solvers. Engineers as problem solvers, and the comment in response to that from David about how we educate engineers actually to become problem framers. And then related it again to a comment that was made about how do we get engineers to begin to be able to solve these messier, larger problems. And a lot of this is related to how you develop a sense of identity as an engineer, and what you allow yourself to envision, is the business of engineering. Traditionally, we have not had a very positive view about engineers being agents of social change. If you feel like being someone who’s going to raise the flag on a social issues, you historically don’t go into engineering to address that issue. But we need to begin to address that issue if we want engineers to be addressing these larger, messier, social problems, and not just problems in small boxes. So the question is, is there a place within engineering for that, in the opinion of the panel members, or is that not the business of engineers?

Moderator: Thank you.

Norman Fortenberry: I think, step way out over a limit. I think that in my mind, engineering is fundamentally about systems. It’s about design, and it’s about systems. I define systems as constructs with a set of characteristics. So I think that engineering can be done on a wide array of systems. And if I take that attitude, there’s virtually nothing that can’t be engineered. And I think that unless we take that viewpoint, we lose the opportunity to be involved increasingly in where the most interesting problems are.

Moderator: Sheri?

Sheri Sheppard: I guess, first an engineering comment. Of course engineers can help with the problem. That’s kind of an engineering attitude. I think one of the things the academy hasn’t tackled, along with industry though, is what is the role of a bachelor’s degree in engineering, and what is the role of a master’s degree? And are we trying to do all of this with the bachelor’s, which is constrained? And aren’t we foremost trying to educate citizens who happen to be engineers? And I think somehow that doesn’t get teased out.

Moderator: Gary?

Gary Gabriele: I agree with both Sheri and Norman. I think there is a role and an opportunity within engineering to do these kinds of things, but it has to change. And first, I think engineering faculty have to change it and start to work with colleagues as David does in the social sciences. I’ve done a little bit of it.

You need to start going out and including those folks and bringing those students together so the students can experience the cultures and the different ways that these different groups define problems. And understand that there is a different language, there is a different approach to how they do things. But it requires us, as Norman said, to get to the root of what we do in engineering, which is to take on design in a broader way, take on systems in a broader way than we currently are.

David Radcliffe: I’ll add that I think there’s a place to have a range of engineering outcomes. So you could have some programs that are much broader and on the fringe of engineering, as we might currently understand it. And these will be the people who will be the integraters and the connectors and make the links between the disciplines, some of these others who can go much deeper. So I think we just need to have a more diverse range of programs, which in turn will attract a much more diverse range of interests. And that will open up a new set of identities for the profession.

Moderator: Go ahead. Elaine?

Elaine Seymour: My colleague from Smith who raised the word “identity” reminds me of the question that I was going to answer earlier on. And that is the issue of women in engineering. The issue of gender, which we have not talked about at all. One of the hardest things, I think, for people who have not been well represented, generally in the sciences, math and engineering, whether it’s women or whether it’s people of color, is to find a place in which they feel they belong. And to develop an identity, which is not necessarily and essentially white and male, but which is valid in its own right. In a study that we have been doing of undergraduate research, we noticed that one of the benefits of this kind of immersion, which is similar to the colleague talking about the experience of being an apprentice, the immersion that you get in those kinds of experiences allows people to go through a process of becoming, of identifying, of taking oneself seriously as a young professional. The issue is how you get to that.

Earlier a colleague said, “What do we gain if we get into all of this?” One of the things you gain, if you make your classroom and your lab more active, more interactive, more discovery based, more open to discourse, you gain the women. You gain the folks of color who are looking for those kinds of conversations to go on in the classroom. It’s a rising tide lifts all ships process.

People who are looking for engagement, who are looking for a place to belong and identify, need interaction if they are going to become part of engineering, physics, chemistry, whatever it is. That is to be gained or lost. If you want to make your classroom an attractive and open place for people who have not been represented well in it then you must think of terms of exactly these pedagogues which we have been talking about.

Norman Fortenberry: But increasingly we also gain white males.

Elaine Seymour: Quite true.

Norman Fortenberry: So the old traditional model isn’t working for anyone.

Elaine Seymour: True.

Norman Fortenberry: We’ve got to change again if we want to bring in more people.

Elaine Seymour: True. We did an experiment with small group learning across the chemistry consortia. We did a comparison between the more traditional classes and the classes with the new teaching in them in the same schools. One of the things we looked at was how they did with small group learning. We found, to our pleasure and amusement, that the women in both classes used small groups informally or on any occasion in which they were encouraged to set them up. The men were the big gainers because they were now empowered to actually have these conversations and do things together.

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