Toward 50K Diverse Engineering Graduates

Removing the barriers toward reaching this ambitious and vital goal of 50,000 diverse engineering graduates by 2025 requires a comprehensive approach and, in some instances, radical change.
Toward 50K Diverse Engineering Graduates

This article is from  SWE Magazine’s 2018 Winter Issue. You can access it your mobile device by downloading our app on  iTunes or Google Play.

By Sandra Guy, SWE Magazine Contributor

One of 29 Latinos and one of 61 females in her mechanical engineering class of 387 students, Karla Rivero Valles will graduate debt-free from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in December 2018.

Toward 50K Diverse Engineering GraduatesRivero Valles, 21, a native of Juarez, Mexico, followed in her dad’s footsteps as a mechanical engineer. She chose to attend UIUC because the university offered the most generous financial aid. That, plus her parents’ help; several internships; and winning scholarships from Engineering Visionary, Illinois Women in Engineering, the President’s Award Program, and the MechSE Out- standing Scholars Fund, enabled Rivero Valles to establish a solid career path. She wants to design equipment, improve processes, and manage an operation at a manufacturing plant.

Rivero Valles said she definitely noticed how few women and minorities shared her upper-level engineering classes, but she said she’s hopeful be- cause she sees the numbers growing. “Every time I see a new engineering class coming in, I see more diversity,” she said. “That makes me more hopeful that the efforts are paying off.”

The percentage of women among all UIUC engineering majors stands at 28 percent for first-year students, 24.5 percent for sophomores, 22.1 percent for juniors, and 19.5 percent for seniors, according to university data.

Moving the Needle to 50K

While Rivero Valles’ experience sheds light on several aspects of engineering education — from the role model father, to working hard, to being a gender and ethnic minority — the financial considerations come through quite clearly. And as formidable as the financial hurdle alone may be, the barriers women and underrepresented minorities experience extend beyond cost.

Because of this, Stephanie Adams, Ph.D., dean of engineering at Old Dominion University, has made it a priority to partner with local community col- leges to ensure that student transfers to ODU are smooth (see sidebar, “Community Colleges: A Vital Link”). “As more students go to community colleges, the four-year engineering programs have got to continue their efforts to make the transition more seamless for students,” she said.

Dr. Adams is the first woman and first minority to serve as dean of the university’s Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, located in Norfolk, Virginia. She is one of four African-American women engineering deans nationwide.

Dr. Adams also said that the engineering profession needs to do better at telling young people who engineers are and what they do, and work in tandem with K-12 teachers to bridge the connection among math and science and engineering. “If people want to create things and see their creations come to life, I tell them that’s what engineers do,” she said.

These smoother transitions and improved communication are only the first steps toward a greater initiative to produce 50,000 women and underrepresented minority engineering graduates by 2025. The 50K Coalition comprises SWE, the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).

Dr. Adams calls the 50K goal a “very complicated process” that requires preparation of children for engineering careers as young as fourth grade, more affordable access to higher education, and showing the students far greater numbers of female and minority professors and deans.

“We’ve moved the needle some, but we have a long way to go,” said Dr. Adams, a fellow of the American Society for Engineering Education who earned her bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from North Carolina A&T State University, her master’s in systems engineering from the University of Virginia, and her Ph.D. in interdisciplinary engineering from Texas A&M University.

She noted that in 2005 she convened a group of African-American women engineering faculty, who then num- bered 96, and that today the total is 151. The 151 African-American women who teach engineering represent 0.5 percent of the entire engineering faculty in the United States.

To help fill the pipeline of African-American engineers, NSBE adopted the first numbers-driven goal in 2014
by declaring it wanted to see 10,000 African-American engineers graduating annually by 2025. That compares to about 4,000 currently.

Toward 50K Diverse Engineering Graduates“We set the goal when we saw a declining share of African-American engineers earning degrees — to 3.5 percent in 2014 from 5.3 percent of all engineering bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2003,” said Karl Reid, Ed.D., the NSBE executive director who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in materials science and engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Reid received his doctorate in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“If we were to achieve 10,000 African-Americans graduating with engineering degrees today, we’d be at parity with our 12 percent representation of the total population,” he said.

On Jan. 26, 2015, SWE hosted a meeting with leaders of NSBE and SHPE to determine how the organizations could work together to create a broader goal. Karen Horting, CAE, SWE’s executive director and CEO, said the big call to action stems from a growing need of engineers compared with flat or, in some cases, declining numbers of engineering degrees awarded to women and people of color or from underrepresented com- munities.

“The demographics of the United States are changing. If we’re going to remain competitive, it’s a national imperative if we’re going to remain innovative,” she said. “We’ve got to ‘grow our own’ and we can’t ignore these large parts of our population anymore.”

Horting said the coalition particularly appeals to her because it operates under what’s known as the collective impact model. “It’s not about working on someone else’s program or about creating something new,” she said. “It’s using our collective impact to ask, ‘What is happening in universities? In other disciplinary societies? How can we harness best practices across these organizations and make the thing everyone is already doing more impactful?’

“That has a greater chance for success than creating something new,” she said.

Horting also wants to see less educational disparity in neighborhoods, particularly in African-American ones, such as when children in grades K-12 have no access to AP calculus and physics courses. “That’s the next piece — looking at the K-12 pipeline, and asking, ‘How do we get more equity there?’” Horting said. “Are we doing the right things to make sure kids are prepared? You can’t be coming into college needing remedial training.”

A Multifaceted Issue

Yet Horting pointed out that there’s no “silver bullet” to reaching the 50K goal. “There are so many facets to the STEM talent issue,” she said. “Part of the work is raising the profile of engineering as a career. Another is looking at the academic environment to make sure it is an inclusive climate and that the faculty are prepared to discuss engineering.”

The 50K Coalition has already obtained funding from corporations, the National Science Foundation, and the United Engineering Foundation. They’ve also set up action groups within the
50K group to try to keep it going. Yet, as Horting noted, “The resources are not what they once were.”

This challenge comes at a time when forecasters say 65 percent of the children being born today will work in industries that we and they don’t know exist. “We are only 10 years into the iPhone experience,” NSBE’s Dr. Reid said. “Think of Uber and Fitbit and all of the other industries upended by technology.”

“The problem is we’re not filling that demand,” he said. “We need to tap every corner of our world to find the talent to not only fill the current demand but to fill the demand that we can’t even anticipate.”

Of particular concern to NSBE is the lack of black women going into engineering, Dr. Reid said. To address the situation, NSBE has partnered with SWE, the Women in Engineering ProActive Network, and Purdue University’s School of Engineering Education to create a collaborative road map to do just that. The road map calls for ad- dressing systemic issues that thwart African-American women’s engineering possibilities.

These include: biculturalism (an expectation that they behave differently at work and at home); tokenism (the perception that the African-American woman has achieved her role only to meet a quota rather than on her merits); stereotype threat (fear of acting in a way that threatens a strongly held stereotype about one’s ethnic group); feelings of isolation; a lack of role models; and pay inequities in the engineering workforce.

Dr. Reid hailed the work of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, 15 of which grant engineering degrees, for doing the “heavy lifting” of graduating African-American engineers. HBCUs represent only 3 percent of all colleges and universities, yet they represent 27 percent of graduates in STEM fields.

“They’ve been doing it with limited resources,” Dr. Reid said. “They exemplify an ethic of care in how they recruit, care for, and graduate students. The capacity and learning determination of what they do well should be shared and increased.”

Broadening the University Component

Indeed, colleges and universities are starting to pick up on that caring and listening mandate exemplified
by HBCUs. The Georgia Institute of Technology, known as Georgia Tech, has rolled out two online degrees at dramatically lower tuition rates to at- tract a more diverse STEM enrollment. Georgia Tech, where engineering majors comprise two-thirds of the student body, stands at No. 2, behind HBCU North Carolina A&T State, in graduat- ing African-American engineers with bachelor’s degrees, according to the lat- est survey by the American Society for Engineering Education. In addition, of its undergraduate degrees, 31 percent go to women, compared with 19.9 per-cent nationally.

The online programs include a Master of Science in analytics, launched in August 2017 with $1 million each in partnership funding from AT&T and Accenture; and a Master of Science in computer science started in January 2014 with $4 million in AT&T backing. The tuition for the master’s in computer science stands at about $7,000 for the 30 semester credit hours, while the analytics master’s costs about $10,000 for 36 semester credit hours.

The partnerships with companies that may eventually employ the students is a key aspect of achieving diversity in the engineering ranks, says Nelson Baker, Ph.D., dean of professional education at Georgia Tech and associate professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Keeping engineering and other STEM graduates in their fields is another part of the issue, especially as Department of Labor data show that professionals now work in 11 to 14 jobs throughout their lifetimes, Dr. Baker noted. A big step toward these goals is a recognition that the university cares about the students, and that university officials and faculty show that they want to help students grow personally and professionally, he said.

That sometimes means radical change to remove barriers. Answers include online coursework; dispelling the idea of a certain number of years required to earn a degree; and encouraging students to obtain educational experiences other than degrees, Dr. Baker said. Georgia Tech also works with and offers fellowships to K-12 teachers to design the K-12 curricula.

Supporting the value of nondegreed educational experience, IBM’s vice president of talent, Joanna Daly, told CNBC that the company intends to hire 15 percent of its workforce without four-year college degrees — on purpose. “There’s an opportunity to broaden the candidates to fill the skills gap,” she said in the interview.

Across the U.S., other colleges and universities are touting their diversity statistics:

  • The University of Texas at El Paso College of Engineering. With fewer than 400 bachelor’s degrees conferred annually, the UTEP College of Engineering ranked first in the nation in 2013 in Ph.D.s to women and second for master’s and Ph.D.s to Hispanics, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
  • UTEP is home to the W.M. Keck Center for 3D Innovation, “the world’s largest hub for additive manufacturing — more commonly known as 3D printing — technologies.” The school offers a graduate certificate in 3-D engineering and additive manufacturing.
  • New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering has launched a start-up incubator for military veterans that offers free entrepreneurship training.

Howard University’s College of Engineering and Architecture boasts a 10:1 student-faculty ratio, nearly 40 percent enrollment of women, and representation of students from 65 countries.

Toward More Comprehensive Solutions

The American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) intends to double the number of its engineering graduates from 370 to 750 by the year 2025, in part by working with corporations, government, and in a new effort, working with private foundations and American Indian tribal governments, said Chief Executive Officer Sarah EchoHawk. AISES also does extensive work emphasizing STEM education in grades K-12.

EchoHawk, whose father, John EchoHawk, J.D., founded the Native American Rights Fund, said she aims to contextualize where Indians are today. “We’re not just a racial group,” she said. “We have dual citizenship. We have our own government, languages, culture, and laws.” Though the U.S. government recognizes 567 tribes, 60 to 70 percent of Native Americans live off of the reservation.

Another priority is to help the tribal nations understand the importance of IT, broadband, agricultural science, and related STEM fields so they can hire their own engineers and STEM professionals and strengthen their economic infrastructure, said Sarah EchoHawk, who has spent 20 years working for national native nonprofit organizations.

During EchoHawk’s four-year tenure at AISES, the 40-year-old organization has nearly doubled its membership, to 4,400 individual members. It also sustains 190 chartered college and university chapters, 15 professional chapters, and 158 affiliated K-12 schools.

Addressing the concerns of the His- panic community, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) has a program specifically for Latinas in STEM called “SHPEtinas” to encourage women along their educational paths from precollege to the professional level. This is accomplished through networking and recognition events, as well as workshops during SHPE’s annual conference. There, participants are taught the importance of self-reflection to discover and learn how to leverage their strengths to fulfill their potential at school, work, and in their communities, said SHPE CEO Raquel Tamez.

SHPE’s vision is a world where Hispanics are highly valued and influential as leading innovators, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, Tamez said, noting that SHPE hosts the largest Hispanic STEM conference in the nation.

Addressing a high-profile and pressing issue to the Hispanic community, SHPE has provided support, via specially designed workshops, to members affected by the Trump administration’s repeal of DACA (the program that protects children of undocumented immigrants). At the same time, through its more than 300 local chapters (including professional, university/college, and junior chapters) across the United States, the organization continues to facilitate and host core programs such as Noche de Ciencias (or “Science Night”).

Noche de Ciencias is a two-to four- hour interactive and bilingual workshop for Hispanic students in precollege and their parents to introduce Hispanic families to STEM via hands-on activities. The workshop offers bilingual information on financial aid, opportunities and careers in STEM disciplines, and university and community college options. “The concept of familia (or “family” in Spanish) is of the utmost importance to SHPE. So much so that we made it one of our core values,” Tamez said.

“The main objective of Noche de Ciencias is to begin to address two major barriers to STEM for Hispanics: aware- ness and access,” she said. “The Hispanic community needs a cultural paradigm shift in this regard. It’s critical. And the time is now. All of us should have a sense of urgency — not just Hispanics.”

Hispanics make up 16 percent of the U.S. population, according to 2010 Census Data, but only 8 percent of all certifications and degrees awarded in STEM fields go to Hispanics. Between 2010 and 2020, STEM occupations will see a 17 percent increase in jobs. “There’s a notable gap,” Tamez said. “Hispanics can be a solution and a sustainable resource to the ever-increasing need in STEM fields.”

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