While my husband and I were building a home, we used to visit the construction site on weekends to monitor progress. One Saturday, the contractors showed us the serving window I had requested between the kitchen and dining room. When I told them it would not do, they looked puzzled. They were both nearly 6 feet tall, so a window 51/2 feet from the floor seemed perfectly fine to them. But at 5-feet-2, I was looking at a wall, not a window.
I relay this vignette to raise, gently and oh-so-carefully, the topic of diversity and its benefits. My vertical deficiency gave me a perspective that taller people could not see or have. I have also been in situations where my being an African-American woman gave me a different perspective of an issue, leading to a contribution that enhanced the solution achieved. What we stand to lose by not paying attention to diversity was highlighted 10 years ago by Bill Wulf, then president of the National Academy of Engineering: “As a consequence of a lack of diversity, we pay an opportunity cost, a cost in designs not thought of, in solutions not produced.”
Even now, the actions we take to achieve diversity can make folks uncomfortable. This does not mean we should not take action, however, but instead act thoughtfully and carefully. That is what ASEE has done.
Past President Sarah Rajala created the ASEE Diversity Task Force, charged with developing a Diversity Strategic Plan enabling ASEE to be a leader in increasing engineering workforce diversity. The Task Force worked diligently to draft an action plan to present to the ASEE Board of Directors in January 2010. The final document listed 38 action items to support diversity efforts within both ASEE and the engineering education community.
Let me digress just a bit here. In 2002, the ASEE Task Force on Women and Minorities, in a comprehensive report, recommended various strategies to increase the numbers and percentages of women and minorities pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, science, and mathematics. The report provided guidance that would put ASEE at the forefront of those seeking to increase diversity. It was greeted with great excitement and expectation for the future. And nothing happened. None of the strategies was implemented, and the report itself faded from memory.
Heeding that earlier time, the 2010 Diversity Strategic Plan contained two primary recommendations: Create the ASEE Diversity Committee as a standing organization charged with the oversight of this strategic plan; and create the ASEE Diversity Center, a website hosted by ASEE Headquarters. The hope was that with these steps, the plan would become a living document capable of effecting real change and progress.
The ASEE Diversity Committee, which I chair, includes Ray Haynes, Verna Fitzsimmons, Laura Bottomley, Ardie Walser, Beth Holloway, Diane Matt, Brian Self, Louis Martin Vega, Sarah Rajala, Peggy Dolet, and Ralph Flori. We held our first meeting at the 2010 Annual Conference. Accomplishments in the year since include approving a new ASEE statement on diversity; increasing the visibility of the DuPont and Keillor awards, which recognize efforts supporting diversity; continuation of the Diversity Booth (sponsored by DuPont), which strengthens both existing and new partnerships with organizations focused on diversity in engineering; developing a presentation for new officer training at the 2011 conference, and producing a website (http://asee.org/about-us/policy/diversity) with resources to support diversity efforts.
As members of the engineering education community, it is our obligation to acknowledge that specific groups have been historically discouraged and turned away from pursuing what we know is a fabulous profession. It is our obligation to nurture and support the next generation of engineers. It is our obligation to change the way that engineering is portrayed and conveyed so that more children want to, and believe that they can, earn an engineering degree. It is our obligation to nurture a professional community that includes individuals from diverse backgrounds collectively working to create the technology for future generations.
As an engineer, I have often seen that the more challenging the problem, the more innovative and creative the solution. I expect nothing less now.
Bevlee Watford is the interim department head of engineering education and director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity at Virginia Tech. She chairs the ASEE Diversity Committee.