New course encourages students to find their seats at the table

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 As the demographic landscape shifts and becomes more diverse, engineers have an opportunity to form teams who can explore problems from more perspectives and enhance solutions. Last spring the college offered an interactive, discussion-based course that investigated the history of contributions by engineers who have been marginalized by race or gender and studied cases where a lack of diversity contributed to adverse engineering consequences. 

 “This was the most rewarding class I’ve ever taught. The cohort of students we had was thoughtful, engaged, open, and honest. We had frank, respectful conversations about tough issues where everyone need not, and did not, agree,” says Department Chair of Mechanical Engineering, Leigh McCue who co-taught the course with Associate Dean for Diversity, Outreach, and Inclusive Learning, Christopher Carr.

Violetta Rostobaya (BSME ’22) says that when she registered for the class, she didn’t know what to expect. “I barely knew any of my classmates since most of us spent sophomore and junior years during the pandemic. Talking about our personal experiences as engineering students was sometimes fun, sometimes uneasy, but overall, it really bridged that gap in socialization that happened during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The class also addressed the impact that social barriers and lack of diversity in STEM can have on an industry’s design process, research, and education system.

They learned how diversity in engineering influences decision-making, team dynamics, and design. They also looked at the results of a lack of diversity. Diverse teams who can look at a problem from different perspectives often uncover hidden challenges. Once they identify the underlying issues, they can develop innovative solutions.

Rostobaya says they gleaned information from both newspapers, and scholarly journals to find cases. “For example, we learned that crash test dummies are designed with the average 5’9’’ 171 lb. male body in mind, and anyone, who does not fit into this description, responds to the impact of a vehicle crash differently,” she says. 

A second, more current example is the design of the pulse oximeter which measures blood oxygen levels and was used extensively for patients who had Covid-19. Some research indicates that the amount of melanin can affect the reading. This problem has existed since the device’s invention in the 1970s but resurfaced during the pandemic due to the tool’s increased use. An article in The New England Journal of Medicine says, “Our findings highlight an ongoing need to understand and correct racial bias in pulse oximetry and other forms of medical technology.”

“Having open conversations was a breath of fresh air among heavy technical classes,” says Rostobaya. I only can wish more students would take this class in the future and learn more about how they can improve STEM spaces.”