UW News

November 17, 2010

College of Engineering putting diversity front and center

UW News

The College of Engineering is looking ahead by making the challenges of diversity a front-burner issue for todays students.

The PEERs (Promoting Equity in Engineering Relationships) Program, funded with a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, exposes undergraduates to issues of bias, both subtle and overt, within engineering disciplines. The cornerstone of PEERs is a one-credit course offered in Autumn Quarter, which culminates in public presentations by course participants for the colleges faculty, staff and students. Students who complete the seminar become PEER Leaders and give presentations to various groups on and off campus, like those on their calendar of events.

Ahlmahz Negash, who is now a PEER Leader and electrical engineering doctoral student, enrolled in the class last fall at the suggestion of her adviser. “Being a minority and a woman, I thought I was aware of the issues,” she says. “But I really was impressed by the research and studies on bias. I was home schooled, and therefore I wasnt exposed to or affected by the bias that other students have faced.”

Negash, energized by the course, now works with the UW Womens Initiative and goes out to speak to under-represented groups, especially in high school, in an effort to promote diversity.

Annie Gillan is an industrial and systems engineering student who came to the UW from Bellevue College, where she was one of only a few women in many introductory engineering classes. As she progressed, the number of women diminished even further. “Although my professors tried to create a welcoming environment,” she says, “other women chose not to continue in a male-dominated field.

“When I came to the UW, some of the facts presented in the seminar surprised me. For example, the diversity of the UWs engineering programs is not better than the national average. The readings in the seminar were eye-opening. I knew diversity was important, but I didnt realize its huge potential impact.”

According to Joyce Yen, the manager for ADVANCE and PEERs, the program is seen as an important step in leadership development. “Sapna Cheryan and I looked for the most powerful data that will resonate with students experience,” she says. “We want to challenge them with questions about how diversity can be successfully promoted. We think the seminar itself makes a statement about the values of the college. Diversity is an important issue for senior leadership.”

PEERs is subject to frequent review and evaluation from the students. At the conclusion of the grant, the college will conduct a climate survey to see what impact the discussions and presentations have had.  A climate survey is currently being conducted to measure the climate at the start of the initiative.

“Our big challenge is to implement a grass-roots strategy that will enable us to reach people throughout the college,” Yen says.

“Im glad my adviser suggested this class. I want to continue to be involved in issues of social justice in engineering,” says Negash. “Ive started to do that as PEERs leader, but I plan to stay involved.”

For the students, one of the goals is to recognize – and react to – subtle examples of bias in their own behavior and that of their peers. “This seminar has made me much more aware of the obstacles created by differences in gender, race and sexual orientation,” says Gillan. “I now recognize the significance of comments that can be interpreted as racist or sexist in a way that I didnt before.”