Lack of diversity in student bodies and professional fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics has increasingly been a topic of discussion in the public sphere, spurred by active conversations across new media.
To learn more about the issues and what is being done to create change, I spoke with Michigan Technological University’s Dr. Gregory Odegard about what he and the university are doing to make a difference.
Adrian de Novato: Thank you for talking with us, Dr. Odegard. Let’s jump right in. Would you give us a brief run down of who you are and what you do at Michigan Tech?
Dr. Gregory Odegard: I am a professor in the Mechanical Engineering – Engineering (MEEM) Department at Michigan Technological University. I am the Associate Chair and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in MEEM.
Q: Michigan Tech was selected as one of just five schools in the nation to participate in the National Science Foundation’s Transforming Engineering Culture to Advance Inclusion and Diversity (TECAID) program. Can you tell us a little bit about TECAID and why it’s important for the mechanical engineering department and Michigan Tech?
A: TECAID will provide our team with training on how to incorporate elements of diversity into our curriculum. With the help of professional consultants, a series of four workshops, and the TECAID participants at the four other universities; we will learn how to identify diversity-related gaps, determine a solution, and advocate for change in the curriculum or culture in MEEM. The other four universities are going through the same process, so they are an excellent source of support.
Q: Under-representation of minorities and women in STEM fields is a problem discussed in administrative rooms across the nation’s academic institutions. Your department’s student body, despite a concerted effort, has only moved from 3.9 percent under-represented minorities and 8.7 percent women in fall 2009 to 5.1 percent and 11.8 percent respectively in fall 2014. What do you see as the primary factors holding back your efforts?
A: Part of what we learned at the first TECAID workshop is that most people are trained from an early age to associate science and technology with men, and liberal arts with women. These associations become hard-wired into the minds of young adults and can affect decisions regarding choice of school and major. Similar subconscious thought patterns exist for minorities. We have to find a way to teach K-12 students that STEM fields are not just for a select demographic, and you don’t need to have a privileged background to succeed in STEM.
Another barrier that Michigan Tech faces is our remote location in a northern climate. There’s not much we can do about this, except to keep working to recruit a wide range of students from across the country.
Q: One of the core focuses of Michigan Tech’s TECAID application was a plan to make significant, meaningful changes to the curriculum of your mechanical engineering program. Could you tell us a bit more about those changes and why you believe this new emphasis will better prepare students and accomplish your goal of increasing diversity?
A: We have just rolled out a new curriculum that places a greater emphasis on hands-on learning and teamwork. This is accomplished with a four-course sequence called “Mechanical Engineering Practice” (MEP). In these four courses we plan to train students in understanding and appreciating diversity within their teams. That means that we need to teach them to be open-minded and aware of how teammates with different views and backgrounds can uniquely contribute to the success of the team. We want to train them in recognizing microaggressions in themselves and others. One of the ways we will assess the effectiveness of this training is to have the students keep a portfolio during the MEP sequence that will include reflective essays. In these essays they will be asked to discuss their experience in teamwork and their growth in working with others. We hope that this reflection will reinforce the importance of diversity to the students.
Q: What will success in the TECAID program look like and what might it do for the mechanical engineering program and the university as a whole?
A: We hope that our new curriculum and new emphasis on diversity training will create better mechanical engineers. We want our students to enter the workforce armed with not only the necessary technical skills to succeed, but with the understanding that STEM fields are directly benefitted from cultural diversity and diversity in viewpoint. We hope that they will, in turn, encourage more women, minorities, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds to enter STEM fields in college.
We hope that other departments at Michigan Technological University will adopt the MEEM emphasis in diversity training. Once we feel that we have optimized the process in MEEM, we look forward to sharing our experiences and approaches with the other units and working with them to develop similar programs.
Q: If I understand this correctly, you are being tasked with leading the TECAID project at Michigan Tech. You also have quite the CV. You’ve been cited over 2,400 times in the technical literature and you’ve been funded by NASA, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, Mayo Clinic, General Motors, REL, and Titan Tires. You even worked at NASA. How will this incredible breadth of experience and expertise help you set the proper direction for this project and how will it play into your decision-making?
A: In all of my experience with graduate students, government agencies, companies, and research; I have learned the necessity of appreciating the unique skills, personalities, and backgrounds of my colleagues. I have learned how understanding different viewpoints is critical to the long-term success of any project. I hope that this experience will serve us well as we attempt to incorporate elements of diversity into our curriculum. I am fortunate to have such a great team assembled, which includes Bill Predebon, Nancy Barr, Michele Miller, and Brad King. Each of them brings a similar wealth of experience to the project.
Q: Would you like to share any thoughts on or insights into the state of STEM diversity in general? They don’t have to be in relation to the TECAID project.
A: During the TECAID project, I have learned that other universities in the U.S. face the same challenges that we do with recruitment of women and minorities as well as with teaching mechanical engineering students diversity in a broad sense. Fixing these problems will require the cooperative efforts of universities across the U.S. I hope that the experiences of the five TECAID universities will help pave the way for change in ME curricula across the country.