Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

November 18, 2015

Promoting Equity in Engineering Relationships

Students learn about diversity in the field of Engineering and gain skills to address equity in college and careers

The College of Engineering prepares students for a workforce in which diversity is increasingly important to teamwork, design and outcomes. Photo: Matt Hagen.

In 2009 a program with the potential to change the way we address diversity challenges in STEM was founded in the College of Engineering on the Seattle campus. The Promoting Equity in Engineering Relationships (PEERs) program embraces diversity in its many forms — race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability and more. It is popular with students for the way it addresses such a broad spectrum within the context of engineering. PEERs anchors discussions with data, teaches communication skills, and focuses on real-world applications of race and equity issues that engineering students will likely face.

Joyce Yen, program/research manager for UW ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change, has led the PEERs program with Sapna Cheryan, associate professor of psychology, since it was originally established with a National Science Foundation grant.

Making topics of diversity and inclusion relevant to the engineering discipline

Rather than bringing in external faculty for a diversity course, Yen and Cheryan found a new model to avoid the disengagement that is common with “outsourcing.” They developed a curriculum grounded in the social sciences but highly relevant to engineering. PEERs was a one-credit seminar until 2015, when they launched a three-credit model to fulfill the diversity requirement and saw enrollment increase. “Students appreciate being able to stay in their own department for the diversity requirement, so it reaches students who wouldn’t have taken a course on diversity on their own,” says Yen. After the class, students can continue as PEERs leaders (see sidebar) and raise awareness in other ways.

Students in PEERs rely on research and gain communication tools to address diversity and inclusion in engineering. Photo courtesy of Joyce Yen.

The program has intentionally evolved to give students the tools to thrive within a flawed system while working to change it. “It creates a community where engineering students can see they’re not the only ones who find things challenging,” says Cheryan. “The research has shown that [this awareness] can protect students from feeling like they don’t belong and dropping out.”

Because engineering students are trained to always look to the data, “The main focus in PEERs is based on research, not intuition or what their parents told them,” explains Cheryan. “We want to replace misconceptions with accurate notions.”

The pragmatism of diversity in the engineering field

Yen and Cheryan’s curriculum also emphasizes the practical implications of learning about diversity, such as the state of the engineering field. “They might enter companies that are extremely homogenous,” says Cheryan. “So it’s possible that students might very rarely have to think about diversity, but PEERs will hopefully force these students to think about it and identify things they can do.”

Yen also points out how the communication and leadership tools which students gain will help them succeed. “Our graduates will go out and have influence in the work force — maybe they’ll start their own company. And we ask them, ‘Wouldn’t you rather be in a place where everyone feels included?’” explains Yen. From managerial challenges to user design and testing, “there are real consequences to not having empathy or understanding the experiences of others.”

Implicit bias, privilege, stereotype threat and intelligence theories are core concepts explored by PEERs:

Being explicit about implicit bias

Implicit biases are attitudes or stereotypes that we carry around with us unconsciously. Implicit biases often come across as structural discrimination, which encompasses the norms and practices of the systems in which we live, as opposed to institutional discrimination, the policies within a system that perpetuate bias.
A former PEERs student, Ahlmahz Negash, Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering, described, “As a black female engineer, I did not feel out of place being the only female in a class. However, the few times I’ve discussed diversity in engineering with male colleagues, they responded negatively. They felt that programs to promote diversity are not necessary — that if women are interested in engineering, they will study it. Most people only know and recognize institutional barriers. PEERs provided me with [the data] to show that structural barriers can be just as damaging as institutional barriers.” The PEERs unit on implicit bias connects with the unit on privilege by demonstrating that, as Cheryan explains, “you can be well intentioned but still perpetuate bias.”

Recognizing privilege

Learning about privilege helps students understand the ways they may have been a recipient of unearned benefits throughout their lives and to understand and recognize implications of structural inequality in our society. Students are challenged to think about why they are where they are in life, how that has influenced their choices and opportunities, how they’ve been the recipient of advantages, and that success is not solely determined by how hard someone works. “We don’t even realize all the different dimensions of privilege — that’s what privilege is,” says Cheryan.

Giving a name to stereotype threat

Stereotype threat is the concept that a person is afraid of either living up to a negative stereotype or falling short of a positive one. For example, one positive stereotype is “Asians are good at math,” so an Asian student who is experiencing stereotype threat might feel burdened by the expectation to always understand mathematical concepts.
Mayoore Jaiswal, an electrical engineering graduate student, describes a negative stereotype that was once made about her: “A visiting professor asked me if the project that I was working on was hard because of my gender. I was lost for words. The PEERs experience helped me to gather my thoughts quickly and give a constructive reply.”
“A lot of the underrepresented minorities and women in the class have felt a stereotype threat but didn’t know what to call it. Seeing the research helps them label it, which decreases its negative power when it occurs,” Cheryan explains.

Recognizing intelligence is not fixed

“There is a growing body of research showing intelligence is malleable, not fixed. Your brain is a muscle and you have to exercise it by studying and working,” says Cheryan. People who think intelligence is fixed tend to avoid difficult tasks and the associated negative feedback. This can lead students to convince themselves that they don’t belong in that class, lab or workplace, or assume it is easy for everyone else. “In fact, grit, the ability to stick with something, is more predictive of success than IQ,” she says. These tools provide underrepresented students
and others who might begin to doubt their ability the tools to reframe a poor exam grade as a sign to work harder or seek support, rather than believing they don’t belong.