The representation of persons of minority identity in engineering, including the groups of particular concern to this project, remains disproportionate across all sub-disciplines in American engineering. This project “brings to the table” scholars, practitioners, policy makers, and other thought leaders from diverse fields in a one and a half day conference and further engagement online to explore this inequitable landscape. Participants identify existing research and frame new research possibilities regarding engineering participation by persons from these underserved communities. Outcomes will include proceedings of the conference that include a synthesis of the conference discussions by the planning committee that can serve as a research agenda for this area of inquiry. The proposed project will advance knowledge and understanding regarding the experiences of underserved students and concerned faculty and researchers, and explore transformative concepts.
Participants address critical research questions around the experiences of underserved and understudied communities that include those questions suggested by intersectional inquiries. The project also promotes teaching and learning, broaden participation of under-represented groups in engineering, and disseminate results widely through engagement within an ongoing community of practice. Project activities create an unprecedented system of exchange among stakeholders, on which researches can draw while shaping projects, seeking research funding, implementing findings, and/or developing project evaluations.
While certain sub-groups display greater inequities than others, and different minority communities attain more and less proportionate participation in engineering, the overall pace of correction of this historic underrepresentation remains glacial. Programming in educational and policy settings intended to correct such inequities is continual but in many instances of small scale or ineffectual.
The guiding principle of “intersectionality” informs all aspects of the proposed conference. The emphasis on intersectionality is central to conducting dynamic, effective research on marginalized groups. Originated by scholars in feminist legal studies and related fields, intersectional-style research regarding STEM fields likely first emerged in an AAAS workshop of December 1975, entitled, “The Double Bind: The Price of Being a Minority Woman in Science” (AAAS) in which race and gender categories were jointly considered. However in more recent scholarship, intersectional analysis has grown to include still more ambitious critical questions regarding identity, social position, and intellectual practice. Following this emergent heuristic, our use of intersectionality is not about an additive approach to identities (studying the female, Hispanic, disabled chemistry student...or the Native American veteran biology student), as the term is still sometimes used, but rather about destabilizing those categories, asking which are meaningful to individuals in different moments and why. Who may have the ability or authority to establish and deploy a category of identity such as “disabled” or “queer” or “poor”, under what institutional and cultural conditions, becomes as important to the study of inequity as are expressions of the categories themselves. Building on the displacement of medical with social models of disability since the 1980s, on queer theories that have interrogated the very nature of belonging and “strangeness” in institutional life, and the denaturalizing of whiteness and other historically unmarked categories, the intersectional approach in our view seems likely to energize powerfully STEM related equity research.
This new approach also suggests that privilege and penalty deriving from one’s identity can co-exist (for example, a white LGBTQ practitioner may succeed in engineering by concealing that identity; or, a LIFG student may gain educational opportunities only at cost to family or community continuity). Acknowledging such complex and indeterminate social relations poses significant challenges compared to simpler depictions of identity customarily found in STEM research, but also offers rich opportunities for more nuanced and effective research Operationalizing intersectionality in this way is one reason for our choice of grouping those who study the engineering experiences LGBTQ and LIFG students and faculty, veterans, and persons with differing abilities into a single workshop. Crucially, however, this approach allows us to avoid a simple “compare and contrast” position in regard to the multiple life experiences to be studied. Nor, vitally, with this approach are familiar “inside/outside” binaries that place diversity researchers and their subjects in differential, unquestioned roles regarding the study of difference perpetuated. Rather, the shifting and multiple characters, and multiple origins, of all such identity ascriptions remain squarely in view. Little research to date directly focused on engineering education has engaged with these promising analytic techniques, but that which does exist suggests why STEM diversity projects of the last four decades have made only limited progress in altering the social profile of this sector.