A Groundbreaking Opportunity

The project held a one and a half day conference in the fall of 2016 that “brought to the table” scholars, practitioners, policy makers, and other thought leaders from diverse fields along with members of these groups to frame new research possibilities regarding engineering participation by persons from these underserved communities. Without excluding inquiry into matters of race, ethnicity and gender, leaders brought these severely understudied experiences among students, faculty, and employees in engineering fields into clearer and more sustained focus.

The proposed dialogue represented a groundbreaking and compelling opportunity to contribute to a national agenda for research that may influence proposal submissions to NSF for the next 5-10 years. Conference and resulting research agenda enhanced our ability to determine not only what improvements can be made to existing research strategies for broadening participation of groups who are often “not at the table?” when it comes to broadening participation discussions—that is, those who are customarily excluded from engineering study by structural inequities of the stratified economic and social systems in which people live and by routine institutional practices at all levels that do not allow students and faculty of certain identities to join the table of engineering identity. Participants reflected on the role of STEM education research itself heretofore in perpetuating inequitable structures, and deep questions about the changes and expansions in research settings and communities of practice that may lead to proportionate participation in STEM across all groups. In this sense of expanding the community of engineering education researchers, too, answering the question “who is not at the table?” is crucial.

This project not only involved studying those who identify as members of the underserved communities that are the project focus (i.e., those already existing within the engineering education system), but also involves discussions of patterns and perceptions of inclusion and exclusion. Participants examined how and why the social construction of multiple identities interact with the existing institution of engineering, and how to change that system to be more equitable and reflective regarding its conduct. In this sense, research models centered on the detection and analysis of minority inclusion and exclusion in engineering disciplines, while seeking to identify inequitable treatment deriving from ascribed identities, may not be sufficient to the cause of correcting inequities.

To reiterate: In an important sense, in asking “who is not at the table,” the “table” itself is very much our subject, as participants investigated not simply the experiences of those absent from engineering but the characteristics of engineering thought, instruction, accreditation and employment that may be reproducing social inequities. We feel that deficit models, which operate on the presumption that under-represented groups require reformulation or skill development prior to institutional participation, remain common (if unconscious) in engineering education and forestall effective address of inequitable conditions. We aimed with this conference, and in enlisting a wide ranging, multi-disciplinary research and practitioner constituency, to interrogate familiar ideas of inclusion and exclusion in the context of institutional conducts and to question the social relations from which such demographic patterns and judgments about them derive.