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Dartmouth Roundtable: "A Brave Space"

Oct 30, 2023   |   Dartmouth Engineer

Dean Alexis Abramson invited Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock, along with engineering faculty and student leaders, to a roundtable this summer to talk about leadership and to imagine a more inclusive, innovative, human-centered future. The conversation took lively turns—into issues of changing culture, the importance of diversity, challenging others, and welcoming different perspectives.

roundtable with Sian Beilock Alexis Abramson faculty and students
Joining the conversation were (l to r): Professor Petra Bonfert-Taylor, associate dean for diversity and inclusion; PhD student and GEM Fellow Adrianne Gowie; Alexis Abramson, dean of engineering; Abby Hughes '25 of the Society of Women Engineers; Dartmouth President Sian Beilock; Melody Cruz '25 of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers; Professor Vicki May, engineering education program area lead; Micah Green '25, co-president of the Dartmouth Black Students Athletes Alliance and member of the Greek Leadership Council; and Professor Laura Ray, senior associate dean for faculty development. (All photos by Rob Strong '04)

The following has been edited for length. Watch video for the full conversation.

ALEXIS ABRAMSON: Let's start with President Beilock. You're the first woman president of Dartmouth, but just as importantly, you bring significant experience in higher education, previously as Barnard's president, as vice provost and professor, and as scientist and researcher. Can you talk about how those roles have shaped you and how you would describe yourself as a leader now?

SIAN BEILOCK: Something I bring to what I do as a leader is really embracing that I have multiple selves. I'm a president, I'm a researcher, I'm a mother, I'm a woman—all of those things come into what I do. Oftentimes, leaders only want to focus on the fact that they are in a leadership role, but I think all those aspects of myself are important to who I am and how I lead. And we know from psychology research that having these multiple selves can be really important. When I have a horrible day as a president, I can go hug my daughter and feel better. And when I'm a horrible parent, which happens all the time, according to my 12-year-old, I can think about some of the other things I do. I bring this perspective that having many dimensions of yourself is really important for your own health and well-being and for how you think about the world.

Sian Beilock talks with Alexis Abramson and students.

"I talk a lot about creating what I call a 'brave space,' a space where we feel we can make mistakes, where we feel not everyone has to think the same way we do, where it's okay to have very different points of view and still be close with someone. Dartmouth can be a leader here."

—President Sian Leah Beilock

ABRAMSON: We think about our faculty and staff and student who also represent many diverse populations, various backgrounds and experiences, cultures that they bring when they come to work and to school every day. How can Dartmouth lead to help us all work together to solve the world’s current and future challenges?

BEILOCK: The data is really clear that the best ideas come when you get people with different perspectives and different experiences at the table feeling they belong and can push at each other. I talk a lot about creating what I call a "brave space," a space where we feel we can make mistakes, where we feel not everyone has to think the same way we do, where it's okay to have very different points of view and still be close with someone. I think Dartmouth can really be a leader here. One, because of our size and scale, we're tight-knit, we do this across faculty, students, and staff; and another, because we attract such great students from all over the world and help them be here, regardless of their means. I think this notion around embedding a brave space in everything we do, from in the classroom to the research lab, can make Dartmouth stand out.

ABRAMSON: Micah, building off what President Beilock has shared, can you share some examples from your experience at Dartmouth or in your life where diversity and taking advantage of the amazing community we have has influenced you?

Micah Greene talks to Laura Ray, Abby Hughes, and other students.
"It’s good to hear different perspectives. Conflict is what drives change. Having somebody who opposes you and being willing to challenge them and talk things through is what’s most important in growth." — Micah Greene '25

MICAH GREENE: I think one example would be my [ENGS 33: Solid Mechanics] class. We had to construct a wooden bridge and test force loads in the middle of the bridge. My group had a person from Canada, a person from Germany, and then myself, being from Indianapolis, I'm kind of the Midwestern person. We would talk about stuff outside of the project, like life in general, how the day was going, what they do, and even the fact that their first time in America, up here in Hanover, is a challenge. Their perspectives were very beneficial for me because being from Indiana—I went to public school, I did a lot of programs throughout middle school and high school—it was kind of normal for me to be in this type of setting. It was interesting to hear their perspectives on the project and life in general.

ABRAMSON: And how was your bridge? Did it withstand the weight?

GREENE: It definitely stood the weight: We had to hold 1 kilonewton, and we held 11.

ABRAMSON: Abby, how about you?

ABBY HUGHES: One experience that comes to mind is [ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering] with Professor Vicki May. I was in a cohort of four women in a project to improve access to rural cooking methods through a stove that reduces smoke output. Being on a team of all female peers was something I hadn't encountered in engineering prior to coming to Dartmouth. Something I've [also] really tried to push is my experience with the Society of Women Engineers. In May, we put on Women Engineering Day, which was sparked from an experience I had in middle school back home in upstate New York. We had students from middle school to high school come to Thayer and we put on different activities in structural engineering with a spaghetti challenge and we talked about polymers with slime. That was just an impactful experience.

Abby Hughes
"I've always thought the best leaders are not the ones in front walking steadfast ahead; it’s the people behind with their arm around someone navigating as a group." —Abby Hughes '25

ABRAMSON: So, Vicki, when you think about the teams you have overseen over the years, how has diversity played a role in the team effectiveness or the actual product they end up building?

VICKI MAY: I would say the more diverse teams definitely have better projects. Abby's team was all women, but it was diverse on a lot of other scales—and I think that was part of the reason you were so successful—from different countries, different backgrounds. Some had human-centered design experience; some were totally math geeks. But it fit together. It is something I try to engineer in my teams. I often say I don't need an engineering degree, I need a psychology degree. I try to get to know the students and figure out their interests and [create] teams that have common values and interests but then are diverse on skill sets and tools and the way they look at problems. I stole that from Scott Page [author of Difference], who says the same thing. I do try to match interests, but then diversify, especially on the skill sets.

ABRAMSON: So having these diverse teams helps you identify the real needs of humans and come up with solutions in a more efficient and effective way.

BEILOCK: It's not just from the research and my experience as a leader, it's not just having different people at the table, it's really creating an atmosphere where you feel you can say, "No, I don't agree with you" or "I don’t think that's the way to do it." I'd love to hear from some of the students who took this course, did you have experiences like that where you had to negotiate and go back and forth to get to the right outcome?

GREENE: I can talk about that. Now I'll bring in football. Me and my teammates, we have conflicts every single day. We like to talk about controversial issues and a lot of people have different political views and social views. It's ultimately good to hear different perspectives. Conflict is what drives change. We never really agree with each other, and that's why we become closer and find solutions to problems. Having somebody who opposes you and being willing to challenge them and talk things through is what’s most important in growth, because when you don't do that, people don't listen and they don't understand the other side of things.

BEILOCK: And your ideas don't get better. You don't have to agree in the end but having to try and convince someone else of your point of view is such a good exercise in understanding how you think about an issue as well.

GREENE: One hundred percent.

Melody Cruz talks to Dean Abramson in roundtable
“I'm very mindful when I step into leadership positions to incorporate different ways for people to voice their opinions.” —Melody Cruz ’25

BEILOCK: It goes to this idea that it's okay to be uncomfortable sometimes; that's how you learn and change. I'm uncomfortable constantly, but you have to lean into it somewhat because that's how we get better at things. Are you uncomfortable?

ABRAMSON: All the time.

BEILOCK: It's important to have our professors and our leaders talk about that. Oftentimes, students think, oh, your path was linear and you knew what you were doing. I can tell you I had no idea what I was going to do when I was in college. I had eight different majors my first year. I had no idea. And I think we often perceive people who are in positions of power as sort of having it all, knowing what's going on. One of the ways that leaders fail is when they don't have people who are pushing at them, who are saying, "No, I don't believe in your idea" or "You need to look at this or that." It's that kind of input that leads to the best outcomes.

MELODY CRUZ: In terms of incorporating a diverse leadership, it's also important to have people from underrepresented backgrounds because you have to be very aware of contextual cues. Some people may veer more toward agreeableness. So even though they may have a challenging thought, they may feel uncomfortable voicing that. I veer toward agreeableness, so I'm very mindful when I step into leadership positions to incorporate different ways for people to voice their opinions—maybe staying a little after the meeting and chatting to someone one on one or, if you see a newcomer in a group project or a club meeting, going to the corner and saying hi.

Adrienne Gowie
"I love that there are so many women. I used to be the only woman in any given room coming from a mechanical engineering background. ... I feel very united in community here." —Adrienne Gowie, PhD student and GEM Fellow

BEILOCK: I love that, Melody. It really makes clear the onus is on the leader to get the best out of everyone. And that means there’s not just one way to do it. So for me, for example, when I’m going to have a senior team at the table talking about something, I often pull people who I know might not be as likely to talk in the meeting ahead of time and ask them for their opinion or I’ll send them an email afterwards. It’s really the leader's responsibility to figure out how to get the best out of everyone. And it's not just one size fits all.

HUGHES: That really reminds me of my experience as a trip leader at Dartmouth for our first-year orientation. I've always thought the best leaders are not the ones in front walking steadfast ahead; it's the people behind with their arm around someone navigating as a group. These really excited but nervous, brand-new students were just trying to navigate new experiences and relationships, hike the Appalachian Trail for three days, and sleep under a tarp and get rained on.

ABRAMSON: That sense of belonging—which I think we'll always be working on, how do we better make everybody feel included and that they belong—is so important to their success and to the success of whatever it is they're trying to achieve.

ADRIENNE GOWIE: I wanted to make a comment on belonging because this is the first time I’ve moved away, even though I did an undergrad degree and a master's degree before this. I think Dartmouth and Thayer make an excellent effort to make sure that everyone feels included. And I love that there are so many women. I used to be the only woman in any given room coming from a mechanical engineering background, so it's nice to be surrounded by other females and other ideas and it's just very encouraging and uplifting. I feel very united in community here.

ABRAMSON: That's wonderful to hear. And now you're doing the PhD program with Professor Baker. From a research perspective—research being one of those areas where we need diverse perspectives digging in and trying to solve the world’s problems—can you talk a little bit about the importance of diversity in research?

GOWIE: I love being in Dr. Baker's lab. I think his lab is the biggest group we have at Thayer, and there's a lot of people from a lot of different backgrounds. If I’m having an issue completing a task, I can ask any one of my peers to show me how to mill a powder or analyze a sample, which were all new things to me going toward a more materials focused major here.

BEILOCK: I always thought graduate school was about figuring out who around you could help you do things because you can't do everything yourself. As a cognitive scientist, I talk about it as distributed cognition: Your brain and everyone’s brains are what lead to an outcome. And so maybe you don't have to be the expert at milling a powder, there's someone who can help you. And the idea is to figure out how to rely on those people around you so you can get to the best outcome

GOWIE: I would say collaboration is definitely the biggest part of graduate school because no man is an island. I've realized that if I don’t ask questions, I'   m not going to get that much done.

ABRAMSON: So true. We have a lot of shared resources here and a lot of collaboration across departments to make our community feel a lot stronger in all these different ways. Petra, you are leading our new strategic planning effort around diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’m curious, what rings true for you when you hear these comments?

Petra Bonfert-Taylor
"It’s the culture that we need to build to support the diversity we want to see. We can’t just bring diversity in and hope for the best." —Professor Petra Bonfert-Taylor

PETRA BONFERT-TAYLOR: Everything rings true. It's the culture that we need to build to then support the diversity we want to see around the table; we can't just bring diversity in and hope for the best. Hearing the voices of diverse teams and experiences on diverse teams, feeling included in the research group, working together as a community, it's wonderful to hear. I speak from a lot of experience myself, having come from an international background. In my former life, I was a mathematician, and so I have seen a different style to approach problems and I can now compare these two different styles of approaching problems—working on your own and making sure it's perfect before you talk to anyone about it versus collaborating, giving it a try. And even those diverse perspectives help in making sure everybody can feel included because not everybody thrives from the same methodologies.

ABRAMSON: We're thinking about changing our approach to undergraduate education and what we need to be doing differently as the world changes. So maybe you can talk a little bit about the future of undergraduate engineering education and what you’re working on.

BONFERT-TAYLOR: I try to take a lot of inspiration from how I learn best. How do I learn best when I have a new car, for example. Do I really read that entire manual first and then start driving the car and remember everything I just read or do I get to the gas station and don’t know where the gas cap is or how you open the gas cap? Experiential learning—that's how I learn. We're developing this new pathway into the major that incorporates the math in a just-in-time fashion rather than in just-in-case fashion. So the math is introduced in an engineering context—this is why we’re going to need this math concept. We’re trying to build this bridge and we need to measure, we need to predict how strong it's going to be. How are we going to do that? The math is going to be introduced in a context is much stickier in your brain than something that's front-loaded.

Laura Ray
"I was a first-gen student. I have advisees who are also first-gen students. ... I tell them [about] my first midterm in physics — I failed. I think it gives them that boost of confidence. It’s not them; it's what's being demanded of them." —Professor Laura Ray

BEILOCK: I love that. And it follows so well from psychology research showing that when you have some sort of idea about why you're learning something, you remember it better. Having some idea and direction and purpose for what you're learning can be helpful in terms of how you understand it, how you remember it, how you apply it, and how you make meaning.

ABRAMSON: Laura, maybe we can turn to you. Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a faculty member here and how diversity has played a role?

LAURA RAY: When I came to Dartmouth in 1996, we had a woman dean. I was one of three women on the faculty, plus the dean. And I thought, hmm, okay, 10 percent, that’s about what my undergraduate class size was in terms of number of women. And it wasn't as collaborative back then for me. I had to find my collaborators over time, and they really did help shape my career at that point. Over time we hired more women [and] we’ve seen a significant growth in diversity of our student body, including the recent decision to and means to provide support to international students' financial aid. My own college experience has played a role in how I advise, how I teach. I was a first-gen student. I walked into my first physics class not very well prepared at all; you had to figure it out on your own, kind of in isolation. Now, I often have advisees who are also first-gen students in these very difficult prerequisites and they’re struggling. I tell them [about] the first midterm in physics I failed. And I say, "Some of your classmates have taken calculus in high school over one or two full academic years, and you’re compressing that all into 10 weeks." And they say, "Oh, I get it." And I think it gives them that boost of confidence. It's not them, it's really the time span and what's being demanded of them.

ABRAMSON: I also want to talk a little about the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.

BEILOCK: First, I think it's important to point out that people can have different points of view about the Supreme Court decision. Part of my goal as a leader is to create a big tent where we can have those conversations. But aside from that, or above and beyond that, what I want to underscore is that diversity of thought and lived experience—which includes racial diversity—is key to what we do on our campus. Of course, we'll comply with laws and rulings, but I think it puts the onus on us as an institution to be even more creative in terms of how we go out and build our class and ensure we get those diversity of perspectives and lived experiences at the table. It is okay to have different views on the case, but what is nonnegotiable, in my mind, is that a diversity of lived experience, a diversity of thought, diversity of people leads to better outcomes. We are an institution focused on academic excellence and impact. As part of our mission, we have to continue to ensure we have those differences around the table, that people feel they belong, that people feel they can have different opinions, push at each other to get to the best answers.

ABRAMSON: At Thayer we take a human-centered approach to engineering, and that means we really focus on the needs of the people, of society, of the planet at our center of the education we deliver and the research we do. Often that also calls us to think about more than just the science or engineering but who and what is really at the center, what are their needs? Who and what might we be forgetting? So maybe we can talk about the bright future ahead and what that might look like when leaders and decision-makers include more insights and voices of the people around this table, the people in our community.

"At Thayer, we take a human-centered approach to engineering, and that means we really focus on the needs of the people, of society, of the planet at our center of the education we deliver and the research we do. Often that also calls us to think about more than just the science or engineering but who and what is really at the center, what are their needs?" —Dean Alexis Abramson

CRUZ: I think a lot of the most pressing issues that affect our society are super complicated and don't have one tangible root cause or one solution either. So having a diverse body of people in leadership allows us to tackle complex issues through different lenses and address the many different ways in which they intersect.

HUGHES: I agree a diverse range of perspectives and a breadth of epistemologies deserve to be valued. [For example] my experience with the Dartmouth Energy Justice Clinic has been exciting. Just as energy issues are changing rapidly, so too are issues of access. In that clinic we're able to speak with community members, Indigenous leaders and work with well-renowned practitioners and researchers to consider the non-technical aspects of the energy transition.

BEILOCK: I just want to point out that this group here is the kind in which problems get solved. I don't know any other institution in the country that would bring undergraduates and PhD students and professors and the dean and the president together to have a conversation about this. This is an example of what makes Dartmouth so special, that faculty work with students, that we're thinking alongside each other. It's a perspective of different generations that comes together to impact what we do as well, which is pretty cool.

ABRAMSON: When you think about the future of Dartmouth, what are some of the things we could be doing to make the world a better place?

BEILOCK: I'm here because I see a powerful institution that can do even more. As Melody said, there's lots of sticky problems that we're dealing with and lots of opportunities and challenges in our future. And those challenges are going to be solved at intersections. It's not just mathematicians sitting in a room by themselves; it's not just humanists. It's people thinking in a human-centered way about how we work to make our planet sustainable, how we think about income inequality, how we think about international security, how we think about everything from digital health to bioengineering. And I really do believe that Dartmouth's size and scale makes us especially well poised to be a leader on a lot of these intersectional challenges.

ABRAMSON: Absolutely. Well, thank you everyone, I think more conversations to come because these are critical to help us all think how we can work together to have even greater impact on the world.

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