That vague, mysterious phrase—“diversity in STEM fields”—has swept across the academic community like wildfire in recent years.
It is a major part of the “Mines 2014-2024 Strategic plan”. This plan outlines the programs and research opportunities designed for underrepresented groups, and the conversations that abound from the enrollment statistics released each year.
“Having different ideas and perspectives is critical in order to address the complex economic, social, and environmental challenges of our future,” expressed Deb Lasich, Associate Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion.
Increasing diversity is very clearly defined as a Mines’ goal—yet engineering’s persistent white, male majority reveals that the campus community is failing to reach the heart of the issue.
“It’s a slow, steady climb,” admits Lasich. In the past 23 years, the proportion of female undergraduate students at Mines has increased by a mere 4.4%. In 1992, women made up 23.4% of the undergraduate population in compared to 27.8% in 2015.
The proportion of Mines undergraduate students who identify as a minority has similarly increased from 11.9% in 1999 to 18.5% in 2015, but remains far below that of the US demographic.
“The question I became fascinated with is: ‘What is it about engineering that makes it so difficult for women and underrepresented groups to want to be in it?” expressed Dr. Juan Lucena, Director of the Humanitarian Engineering Department.
Mines now boasts the largest Society of Women Engineers (SWE) chapter in the nation, but increases in gender diversity are as rapid as hoped for.
“Nationally, we are above the trend, but that doesn’t mean we are finished by any means,” Lasich explained of female enrollment.
WISEM (Women in Science, Engineering, and Math), SWE, and the Admissions Office have designed many initiatives designed to encourage middle and high school aged girls to pursue engineering. However, many feel that the problem runs deeper.
“The problem is inside the curriculum,” asserted Lucena in regards to the lack of diversity in engineering. “It divides the world into two realms: the technical and the social.”
Lucena explained that when students cannot see a clear link between the problems that they solve in their classes and the change that they would like to make in the world, they often become discouraged and choose to study something else. When students cannot see a clear link between the problems given in class and the change that they would like to make in the world, they often become discouraged and choose to study something else.
By Lucena’s definition, engineering cannot be diversified by solutions that are marginal to the curriculum, such as summer bridge-building programs and professional societies targeting specific demographics. Instead, the key to diversifying the field is to empasize the links between the technical and social aspects of a supposedly human-centered science.
“I am trying to connect the engineering and the social through humanitarian engineering as a big bridge between these two,” stated Lucena. “And it is not by coincidence that most of the students are women.” Many programs on campus that focus specifically on socially relevant issues like health and the environment, such as the Chemical and Biochemical Engineering major and the Civil and Environmental Engineering majors, display similar numbers of women students.
Yet, changing the fundamental way that engineering is perceived on campus is not an easy task. Lucena is convinced that even abstract disciplines, like computer science or electrical engineering, can make human connections. The problem lies, however, in convincing those who control the curriculum.
Beyond Gender, Race
Lasich explained that demographers estimate that by 2050, the U.S. will no longer have a majority racial/ethnic demographic. With this in mind, it is more important than ever to have unique ideas circulating in all engineering disciplines.
“If we don’t have diversity, we can’t be innovative, we can’t be creative. You need to plan with, and not for, when dealing with people and communities different than yourself,” Lasich expressed. President Paul Johnson is also focused on increasing the number of female faculty members by modifying the recruitment and hiring process.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion will be publishing a comprehensive report next year on campus demographics, including enrollment, hiring, and minority specific programs. Additionally, Mines is working on increasing diversity in areas that cannot be as easily seen or quantified, like diversity of thought.
For instance, 2015-2016 marks the first year of the Nucleus Program, a Theme Learning Community (TLC) designed to foster learning and communication among first generation and low-income students. Mines administration hopes to maintain an open forum of communication with students regarding diversity and be willing to adapt as new issues arise. In response to the needs of students and employee requests, all new campus buildings will now be required to have mother’s rooms, gender-neutral restrooms, and infant changing tables in all restrooms.
“By having a more diverse community of students, faculty, and staff at Mines, our graduates will be better leaders, community members, and world citizens,” Lasich explained.
Any solution requires more than just new organizations and better public relations with underrepresented groups.
“Those people who benefit from keeping everything [the same] are never willing to reflect on what is happening inside of engineering,” Lucena argued. “But we want our engineering to have social relevance and to do good for the world.”
Above: Infographic based on 2015-2016 Mines Enrollment Report.