Can curriculum changes lead to more diversity in engineering?

Rebecca Atadero spent much of the fall semester attending 100-level engineering courses, listening to instructors, watching presentations and jotting notes. Atadero wasn’t a student, nor was she teaching the course.

Instead, the Colorado State University civil engineering professor was looking for opportunities to infuse more diversity into the courses – whether it’s asking female and minority alumni to present or teaching students the importance of working with people of various backgrounds.Atadero

The in-class visits are part of a National Science Foundation-funded project Atadero is leading to study whether curriculum changes can help expand students’ view of who can be engineers.  The hope is that it will lead to greater diversity in engineering, a field dominated by white males.

“Students come to engineering schools with pre-conceived notions of who engineers are and that is reinforced during college,” Atadero said. “We want them to expand their perceptions and realize why it’s important to have diverse viewpoints as they identify and approach engineering challenges.”

Atadero and other members of the research team – Dr. Karen Rambo-Hernandez, co-principal investigator and professor at West Virginia University, and Dr. Christina Paguyo, a postdoctoral fellow in the College of Engineering – plan to survey students before the classes and after to see if the changes affected these notions.

A different approach

The project takes a different approach to a much-debated problem – how to recruit and retain more women and underrepresented minorities into the male-dominated fields engineering.

Government agencies, universities, schools and private industry have long wrestled with the problem and have launched numerous campaigns and programs to recruit women and minorities into these fields and support them once they enroll.

Despite those efforts, the number of women and minorities enrolled in engineering has not risen dramatically.

Recent statistics from the Engineering Workforce Commission indicate the number of females and certain minorities enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs either declined or essentially remain unchanged in 2011 compared to 2001.

In 2001, 18.3 percent of female undergraduate students were enrolled in engineering programs. In 2011, 18.4 percent were. During that same time, the number of black undergraduate students enrolled in engineering programs dropped from 8 percent to 6.3 percent.

“We’ve stalled,” Atadero said.

She believes the recruitment efforts are valuable but also believes a cultural shift needs to occur. She describes the goals of the new NSF project this way:

“Engineering programs have been characterized as having a chilly climate. Men already show up in coats. The programs that have been put in place to recruit more women and minorities into engineering focus on providing these groups with coats to keep up with the men. Instead of making sure everyone has the same coats, let’s change the climate. Turn up the heat so people can come to engineering as they are and not have to suit up to fit in.”

 Engineering is for everyone

Atadero submitted the proposal after viewing video recordings of student engineers working on group projects for a previous study showed subtle differences between how the group acknowledged ideas when suggested by females versus males.

“They weren’t necessarily ignoring what the female students had to say but the group appeared to take action and listen more if the same idea came from a male,” Atadero said.

It made her realize that one of the problems is who students perceive as being engineers.

“We need students to understand that engineering isn’t just for one group,” she said. “It’s for everyone.”