New graduate course aims to promote inclusivity in engineering

Posted: July 13, 2020

A new course this fall will enable graduate engineering students to explore how deeply-held beliefs about race and gender contribute to the exclusion of those who identify as non-male and non-white from participating in the field.

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[four graduate students engage in discussion] “Gender- & Race-Based Minoritization in Engineering Education” (ENGREDU 6194) will provide graduate students of all backgrounds with an opportunity to deepen their understanding of the complex and fundamental role that gender and race play in their own lived experiences, the experiences of others, and engineering education systems, said instructor Emily Dringenberg, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education. Students will be supported throughout the semester to critically reflect on and express their own identities, experiences and beliefs.

“Undergraduate engineering enrollment patterns show that women and People of Color remain consistently minoritized,” explained Dringenberg. “The use of the word ‘minoritized’ is intentional to turn the focus onto those of us who embody the system, like myself. Rather than framing our efforts on understanding those who have been excluded and assuming they have a deficit that needs to be fixed, this language orients the call for change towards those of us in positions of power and how we can disrupt the status quo.

“How can we understand ourselves and the social constructs of race and gender to change our design and enactment of systems, like admissions processes, the way we run our classrooms and how we advise students? Without taking responsibility for our own awareness and behavior, we enable the exclusion of those with non-dominant identities.”

[Emily Dringenberg] DringenbergThe course is particularly timely given recent national events shining light on systemic racism, but was proposed more than a year ago as part of the educational plan of Dringenberg’s 2019 NSF CAREER award, which aims to help broaden participation of non-white and non-male individuals in engineering. The field’s systemic exclusion of women and People of Color is due, in part, to the deeply-held beliefs that people in positions of power hold about race and gender, explained Dringenberg. Systemic change will require revisions to policy, as well as powerful individuals having the space to be vulnerable and reflect critically on their own beliefs.

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“If you want to increase inclusivity of our engineering spaces, it all starts with yourself—understanding your life, your identity and what you’ve been socialized to believe about how the world works, and we often don't do that,” said Dringenberg. “In our culture, we have these narratives and we don't always actually have data or evidence to support them. They just come from our socialization—maybe the things we hear or read. I want to provide a space for students to reflect on their beliefs about why engineering remains predominantly male and white, and then say, OK, what does theory tell me? What cultural ideologies are at work here? What evidence am I relying on?”

The course objective varies a little from most others in that the focus will be on each person’s individual growth. Dringenberg will work with students to co-create final projects and deliverables that are meaningful based on their own social-identity development, positionalities and areas of interest, such as hosting a discussion group with peers or writing letters to policy makers.

“As with any class, our students have different identities, different experiences. They're from international locations. And so the idea is not that everyone will see things the way I currently do, or that they will learn the ‘correct’ beliefs about race- and gender-based minoritization in engineering,” said Dringenberg. “My goal is to help us focus on ourselves and the things we can control rather than just telling people how to think, because we know when it comes to beliefs, people only change them when they feel safe to engage in critical self-reflection, build strong relationships and hear real stories.”

Similar to its subject matter, the course will evolve with time. As part of her research, Dringenberg will be evaluating the curriculum throughout the semester in an effort to make it more effective. Eventually she would like to see it, or something similar, as a requirement for Ohio State’s engineering PhD program.

“One of the great things about this project and teaching these classes is that I get to learn as I go,” Dringenberg added. “I don't think that there's some threshold you cross where you ‘get it’ now versus you didn't ‘get it’ before. I think we're all on a journey, and I am realizing that a commitment to diversity and social justice is a commitment to continual learning and self-reflection.”

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu