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Engineering Professors Tackle Barrier to Inclusion: Their Own Culture

Engineering faculty and staff understand why people want to become engineers: Engineers get to use their creative side and their analytical side. It’s fun to work on a team. Exploring new technologies is exciting and adventurous. The salaries are very attractive. And, perhaps most important of all, engineers design things that make the world a better place.

So why would anyone leave engineering while pursuing a degree? Engineering professors do not understand this well, but the data shows, at CU Denver and elsewhere, that more people leave engineering school than finish. A growing body of evidence suggests that people leave engineering not because they are unqualified, but because they feel unincluded or unwelcomed. This is a big deal for engineering colleges, for industry needs, for national competitiveness, and for social mobility (remember those salaries).

Over the last 10 or 20 years, engineering education researchers have learned what it takes to create a more inclusive engineering culture. We have best practices, but many of these are limited to recruiting and supporting engineering students without asking what aspects of the everyday cultural context may need to be addressed. For example, we have yet to discover how to get more engineering faculty to become aware of these best practices for inclusion and to deploy them in their classrooms, office hours, research laboratories, and daily interactions with students. Why? Because most engineering faculty have been trained to separate their brilliant technical ideas from what is too often portrayed as the confounding conundrum of culture.

“That’s exactly the problem,” says civil engineering professor David Mays, who is working with five colleagues to tackle this problem head-on. “We engineers are trained to focus on the technical details and to assume that cultural context is either unimportant or beyond our scope of work. Our training says that engineering is neutral. But that is a myth. We believe that it is important for engineers to value things like community and tradition, to make a difference in people’s lives. That’s why we called our project ‘Engineering is Not Neutral’.”

Mays and colleagues from CU Denver’s College of Engineering, Design and Computing have won a three-year award to entice engineering faculty to apply known best practices for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This award of $350K from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) program, Broadening Participation in Engineering, will support a three-year faculty learning community, with participants from each of the five engineering departments at CU Denver, that will spearhead an effort to make CU Denver engineering feel welcoming to students from all walks of life.

Mays continues, “How do we get more engineering faculty to apply known best practices? Through two simple ideas.” The first idea is collaboration, through a three-year faculty learning community of early adopters and change makers. The second idea is engagement, based on the simple idea that engineering professors are people, and that people respond first to emotions and second (if ever) to facts. “It’s hard to understate the importance of winning hearts and minds,” Mays adds, “so this project is called Engineering is Not Neutral: Transforming Instruction via Collaboration and Engagement (ENNTICE).”

“By the way, that title was written by my collaborator Heather Lynn Johnson from the School of Education and Human Development,” Mays observes, “which goes to show the value of getting input from people outside your own area.”

ENNTICE includes professors Tom Altman (Computer Science), Maryam Darbeheshti (Mechanical Engineering), Kate Goodman (Inworks), Heather Lynn Johnson (Mathematics Education), David Mays (Civil Engineering), and Kristin Wood (Engineering Dean’s Office and Mechanical Engineering). Over the next three academic years, they will be working with colleagues from every engineering department, with the campus-wide Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, with the national Aspire Alliance, and with the INCLUDES national network—one of NSF’s 10 Big Ideas.

The team would love to hear comments and suggestions, which can be submitted to engineering communications manager Erica Lefeave. Join us on the ENNTICE journey for diversity, equity, and inclusion in engineering at CU Denver and beyond. The future is exciting!

CU Denver Engineering, Design and Computing View All

At the CU Denver College of Engineering, Design and Computing, we focus on providing our students with a comprehensive engineering education at the undergraduate, graduate and professional level. Faculty conduct research that spans our five disciplines of civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, bioengineering, and computer science and engineering. The college collaborates with industry from around the state; our laboratories and research opportunities give students the hands-on experience they need to excel in the professional world.

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