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Innovation Through Diversity

Apr 08, 2021   |   by Eun Lee Koh ’00   |   Dartmouth Engineer

As global challenges grow increasingly complex, Dartmouth engineers look for untapped solutions by first, building a diverse and inclusive community.

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

The events of the past year—a worsening pandemic; deepening economic divide; the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and the ensuing cries for racial justice; the storming of the U.S. Capitol; raging wildfires; rising sea levels; and devastating hurricanes—are enough to paralyze some.

For Petra Bonfert-Taylor, professor of engineering and new associate dean of diversity and inclusion at Thayer School, the confluence of complex but interconnected problems demonstrates the ideal challenge for engineers.

A Renewed Focus

“What has become clear is that we can’t solve problems in silos, with the same groups of people,” Bonfert-Taylor says. “More people are recognizing what a lot of people in marginalized communities have known for a long time: the importance of including diverse voices, perspectives, and leadership in problem-solving—and what can happen when we don’t.”

The solutions to increasingly complex global challenges, experts say, will require the talents and perspectives of the people who directly wrestle with the issues—from Indigenous communities in the Arctic impacted by the alarming pace of climate change to members of Black communities who bear the brunt of inequities in policing and healthcare access.

For Dean Alexis Abramson, who took Thayer’s helm in 2019, diversity and inclusion has been an important priority, and it remains imperative that the culture reflects the human-centered approach encouraged in its teaching, research, and practice.

"We have to embrace diversity, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s a critical driver of problem-solving and innovation."

—Dean Alexis Abramson

“We have to embrace diversity, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s a critical driver of problem-solving and innovation,” Abramson says. “Our experiences in life shape our worldview and how we look at problems. When we say that we take a human-centered approach to engineering, we have to ask ourselves, which humans are at the center? And who are we leaving out?”

Early on, Abramson appointed Professor Laura Ray to oversee faculty development and recruitment and bring candidates who would not only advance Thayer’s research and educational mission, but also bring diverse perspectives to the community. During the height of the pandemic, as Thayer’s diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts came into sharper focus, Abramson appointed Bonfert-Taylor, a long-time advocate for women in engineering and students of color at Dartmouth, to take the lead.

Bonfert-Taylor witnessed how education could change the trajectory of a person’s life. Prior to her new role, she co-founded Dartmouth Emerging Engineers to support students, particularly women and underrepresented students of color, through engineering prerequisites and developed an entry-level math course to prepare students, whose path to STEM may not have been traditional, for the rigors of upper-level engineering.

“We have everything to lose when we exclude qualified, talented individuals, because it means we are not using the fullest potential at our disposal,” says Teja Chatty Th’23, a third-year PhD Innovation Fellow. “This is a huge loss, especially at a time when we need to tackle big problems such as climate change expeditiously.”

Growing Movement for Change

Last summer, as demands for racial justice grew nationwide, Chatty and PhD candidate Steffi Muhanji Th’16 Th’21 helped organize virtual conversations around race, identity, and equity—an effort that is remains ongoing.

“We felt we could work to improve inclusivity at Thayer for ourselves and other underrepresented students,” says Chatty.

Chaired by Bonfert-Taylor, Thayer’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, which evolved from a working group established 2016, is currently focused on initiatives: expanding access to the bachelor of engineering program, creating mentoring and networking opportunities for underrepresented students, strengthening partnerships with historically Black colleges, and revamping the graduate student recruitment process.

“As engineers, I know that many of us want to help the world, but when we don’t seek input from the right people, it falls flat,” says Professor Vicki May, a member of the DEI Committee. When she studied various ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering projects, May was able to pick out one common thread: “The more diverse groups, especially the ones that took a human-centered design approach, were more successful. They looked at problems in ways other teams hadn’t considered. We can’t just show up somewhere and pop in new technology without cultural context or understanding the full societal impact. Having the right people from the start helps.”

Across Thayer, faculty are focusing on diversity—from race and gender to ethnicity and culture to technical skills and academic disciplines. Earlier this year, Amy Keeler, associate director of Career Services and a DEI Committee member, collaborated with faculty to develop lessons on inclusion within student teams. Research shows that roles can fall along gender lines, with male students as technical leads and female students playing support roles. To avoid these pitfalls, Keeler worked with students to become more intentional in their approach. For instance, she asked students assigning team tasks to consider not just skills, but also perspectives and life experiences. She also suggested they alternate non-technical, support tasks.

“For any project to be successful, you need all of your best ideas at the table,” Keeler says. “That can’t happen if not everyone has the opportunity to demonstrate their talents or for their voices to be heard.”

The Road Ahead

While increasing diversity among faculty and students remains an important goal, the more challenging work is in building—and sustaining—a community that is truly inclusive.

Zachary Price, a member of the DEI Committee and development officer for Thayer, sees the importance of inclusion in his work with alumni, whose connection to the community is tied to their willingness to invest in Dartmouth’s future. The most engaged are alumni who feel an innate sense of belonging.

“Dartmouth is a unique cultural place. Anyone who wants to come here has to be willing to learn about the things that makes Dartmouth Dartmouth,” Price says. “On the other hand, what could Dartmouth do to make sure that people here feel as though they truly belong? What are barriers and how can we erase them, so people feel empowered here?”

As part of Dartmouth’s Campus, Climate, and Culture initiative (C3I), the College has been conducting surveys to identify elements of Dartmouth culture, policies, and practices that help or hinder progress toward more inclusive and equitable academic environments.

According to May, a co-leader of the climate survey, the data will help departments appreciate where they stand, foster practices that work, and identify opportunities for growth. Bonfert-Taylor and Keeler have also kicked off a DEI learning series at Thayer, with weekly videos, podcasts, and academic papers that culminate in community-wide discussions.

Career Services is also identifying ways to better support students, particularly from underrepresented backgrounds, in their transition from school to work environments.

“What’s at stake if we don’t get this right?” Keeler asks. “What we could lose is our potential for innovation, all of the patents for life-saving devices and technology—things that can change the world. We miss out on the very things that move us forward.”

—Eun Lee Koh ’00 is senior director of communications at Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth.

Why Innovation Needs Diversity—and How We Get There

Dean Alexis Abramson recently wrote that schools can raise their capacity for innovation by increasing diversity within their faculty and student ranks. Below is an excerpt from her blog post.

The problem actually begins before students arrive at the front door of most colleges and universities. Competitive applicants to top engineering schools are on the STEM track for years. But, what if this path doesn’t readily exist or it was not encouraged early on? These students may have the potential to be the next Nikola Tesla or Katherine Johnson, but they’ve been shut out of STEM from day one.

So, how do we fix this?

1. Open the Door Wide

Engineering shouldn’t be an exclusive endeavor. Any student admitted to Dartmouth can take an engineering course and choose to major in engineering. The results speak for themselves: Approximately half of our engineering graduates say they did not seriously consider engineering when they walked in our doors.

2. Identify and Remove Barriers

When we learned that we lose some potential engineering students early on in required math courses, we developed an introductory course to build stronger math foundations. We open our Introduction to Engineering course to the entire student community. In a welcoming and fun environment, students take risks, experiment, build, and prototype in teams, while exploring scientific and engineering concepts through hands-on projects.

3. Take a Human-centered Approach

At Dartmouth, we also make the liberal arts foundational to engineering and STEM education. Students gain a broader perspective of humanity through the liberal arts—and by that I mean the study of literature and history, or political science and psychology, through philosophy, religion, and design. Without that deep consideration of the human condition, we limit engineering’s future.

I challenge other engineering educators to consider how we can open our field further to a broader population. If we are successful, we not only create a talent pool that includes more women and people of color, we also strengthen innovation with fresh perspectives and new ideas to solve some of the world’s most complex challenges—for all of humanity.

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