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MSPnet Blog: “Broadening participation in engineering: key ingredients”

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posted September 6, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

Corlis Murray, the chief engineer at Abbott, is the only African-American woman holding such a position in a fortune500 company. As she writes, in a guest post at Valerie Strauss’s Answer Sheet,

With the world’s population made up of half men and half women, just 15 to 25 percent of people work­ing in STEM are women, and only 1 in 7 en­gi­neers is a woman. And just 1 in 50 is an Af­ri­can American woman.
The issue is not a lack of in­ter­est or de­sire. The prob­lem is that many young women and mi­nori­ties with an ap­ti­tude for math and sci­ence nev­er ex­plore re­lated fields and nev­er con­vert to work­ing in them, be­cause they are not ex­posed or en­cour­aged in a way that helps them see what could be pos­si­ble.

Murray tells how, as a high school girl,  she was encouraged to take an internship at an IBM summer program, and there found a mentor who helped her imagine herself as an engineer:

The Af­ri­can American man who took me out in the field to troubleshoot main­frame com­puter sys­tems — the same ones you may have seen in the mov­ie “Hid­den Fig­ures” — at a time when most female en­gi­neers stayed at their desks showed me that people who looked like me could suc­ceed. He dem­on­strat­ed how my nat­u­ral a­bil­i­ty for math and sci­ence could be put to use in a deep­ly mean­ing­ful way.

The combination of this mentorship, added to Murray’s own drive and talent, and to the coursework and other study she undertook, engaged her imagination and the impact was to set her on quest to turn her newly recognized possibility into her reality.  The rest of her post tells something of how she’s working to offer similiar opportunities to other young people — and, in true engineer fashion, argues that the present gap in participation of women, people of color, and women of color in STEM,  ” is trag­ic. It’s also mend­a­ble.”

Her blog post reminded me of some of the projects that have presented videos over the past 3 years in the STEM for All Videohall, and I revisited a couple from 2016, each addressing a different point in the “pipeline” or pathway from curious childhood to purposeful young adult in STEM.

Shabnam Etemadi’s survey of under-represented grad students found that a a range of factors affected these students’ perssistence through their graduate programs:

Results indicate that time management, communication skills, motivation, and support system are all what we term as “hindrances” in students being able to successfully complete a STEM graduate degree.

In the “support” category, something like 80% mentioned the importance of mentoring, and nearly as many mentioned peer support as key factors in their persistence in their studies.  The people whom you meet, who help through  problem solving, encouragement, and example, have a powerful nourishing effect, “even” at the graduate level, where one might imagine that one’s identity as an engineer or scientist has been settled enough to get you into the program in the first place.  No decision is irrevocable, no future is assured, until it’s made a present actuality, and help of many kinds along the way can be decisive.

Yet getting on the path is the first step, and maybe the biggest — through a realization like Corlis Murray’s that something you find delightful or exciting could be part of your future.

Another video from the same year captures some of the excitement of kids on the verge of that discovery — as one girl says, “All these steps that we did, it helped me like, think about how I might want to be an engineer.”  Who knows where she’ll end up?  Even if her dream changes, it may well be different because she could one pathway that led her to STEM,  a pathway she might not have seen if she hadn’t been given a chance to think, argue, tinker, design — mess about with others engaged in the serious play that the world can offer.

The discussion that followed the video, even though it’s frozen in 2016, still makes lively and engaging reading — as the participants engage in their own serious play with the ideas from the Engineering is Elementary video, and from their own research and experience.

This is fantastic. I love the testimonies of the students. Utilizing the design process to guide their learning is a great step towards developing metacognition! …Awesome.

Corlis Murray’s article had sent me into the archives, and a search for “engineering” and “broadening participation” brought me to many stories that reinforced hers — the chance to do the stuff is critical, but not enough. Who you do it with, what kinds of agency you are given, and what the setting can tell you about yourself (now and future) are also essential ingredients — enriching the mix that feeds imagination.

NOTE:  The opinions expressed here are those of the author along.  They are not necessarily those of MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation.