The Human Face of Engineering
Malcom, Shirley M., Journal of Engineering Education
Engineers. . .a sea of white faces, all male, all in white shirts with dark ties. This was both the image and the reality of mission control at NASA in the 1960s. We were reminded of that history in October 2007 during events and reporting surrounding the 50th anniversary of Sputnik Perhaps it takes such a stark reminder to realize how far we have come in increasing the diversity of engineering and also how far we have to go before the task is accomplished! Many in that room were drawn there by the challenge to "put a man (sic) on the moon and return him safely to the earth"; others by a sense of patriotism born of the need to "defeat the enemy." What is striking is who was missing.
In 1970, women received less than 1 percent of bachelor's degrees awarded in engineering. By 2006 women earned almost 20 percent of these degrees. African Americans also received less than 1 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering in 1970 and almost 5 percent in 2005. Hispanics received 2 percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering in 1973; by 2005 this had grown to 6.4 percent of bachelor's degrees. Native Americans grew from 0.1 percent to 0.5 percent of bachelor's degrees earned between 1973 and 2005, and Asian/Pacific Islanders swelled from 1.6 percent to 13.2 percent of bachelor's degree recipients in the same timeframe.
From 16 women and one African American engineering doctorate recipients in 1970 the numbers swelled in 2005 to 1,322 women and 111 African Americans. Clearly the times, the numbers, and the images have changed, becoming much more diverse, although not yet as diverse as the higher education or general populations available from which to draw talent. Collectively, women and minorities represent some 64 percent of all students in higher education institutions. These numbers promise to climb as minorities become an even larger component of the school-age population.
However, it has not been easy to move the engineering numbers. In the case of women and minorities, it took the civil rights movements for both groups to make the connection and affect the impact of taking rigorous courses in mathematics and science in middle school and high school. Special programs introduced young women and minorities to engineering professionals who looked like them and to the work of engineers. Minority students joined out of school and summer programs aimed at career education, at closing the information and preparation gap, and at getting students oriented toward college. Interestingly, these programs provided access and engagement one student at a time through "high touch" experiences that both supplemented and counter-acted the effects of schooling! Clearly, greater complementarity of formal and informal education would make the job easier. This includes internships and co-operative education programs that put students into the job environment, in the middle of real work.
These days it may be harder for institutions to put in place "special intervention programs" to introduce women and minorities to engineering without running into legal concerns. So creating learner-friendly environments must extend beyond projects to be embraced by individual faculty members, teams of faculty, departments and schools of engineering, drawing on the research and on what we learned from the "special efforts."
Today, several factors emerge more often in discussions about minority participation in engineering, including: adequacy of preparation, especially in mathematics and science; understanding of how to navigate higher education; and affordability of higher education. But these are not the only issues. Barriers to study and work in engineering perceived to be shared by women and minorities include: a faculty focus on what students lack rather than what they bring; an image of engineers and engineering as the purview of whites and males, involving work that is "object oriented" rather than "people oriented"; a lack of availability of accurate career information that reflects the real work of engineers in many different settings; different and/or lower expectations, including bias; and the nature of the curriculum and experiences provided in engineering programs. …