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Ongoing program seeks increased accesibility to engineering education

MIT students and faculty are engaged in an ongoing effort by a coalition of seven universities to make engineering education more accessible to women and minorities.

The Engineering Coalition of Schools for Excellence in Education and Leadership, or ECSEL, is one of four such coalitions of universities that formed in response to a request for proposals from the National Science Foundation. Along with MIT in ECSEL are City University of New York, Pennsylvania State University, the University of Maryland, Morgan State University, the University of Washington and Howard University, whose dean of engineering is the group's main contractor. The principal investigator at MIT is Professor David Gordon Wilson of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

The project has emphasized the integration of design work into engineering curricula at an earlier stage than students had seen in past years, Professor Wilson said. Traditionally, students take many courses in the basic sciences including physics and mathematics before applying that knowledge to real-world design problems. The newer approach is intended to improve engineering education in general and to attract and retain women and minority students at an earlier stage, he said. To that end, new courses have been introduced in several departments, and the curriculum of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has been reorganized.

"This is very unusual" to teach design early in the programs, Professor Wilson said. "We're doing much more real engineering now."

Some of the ECSEL work here at MIT thus far has involved searching out and summarizing the literature concerning barriers that women and minorities encounter when pursuing studies in engineering and science, said Dr. Caroline Whitbeck, a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering and the faculty supervisor for UROP students involved in the project, which is now in its fourth of five years.

Students have also been reviewing various classes and working with faculty members in an effort to pinpoint barriers to learning that teachers may be unaware of. For instance, some professors use examples in teaching or on problems sets that have to do with "sports and other male-dominated things," said Rae Lewis, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering who is head of student leadership for ECSEL at MIT and co-head of student leadership for the entire coalition.

According to several studies (including one done at MIT), black students and members of other minority groups as well as women of all backgrounds frequently feel the academic pressure associated with science and engineering education more than whites, Ms. Lewis said. A white male student who isn't doing well in a class and discusses the situation with his or her advisor might feel concerned but still relatively confident that working harder will result in an improvement, she said. "But a minority student who is constantly discouraged takes it as one more blow; they think, `probably I'm not meant to be here'. you lose confidence because of this barrier." Discrimination in the form of overt racism or sexism is rare, Ms. Lewis added; biases are usually more subtle.

"The faculty is not nearly as diverse as our student body. There's a tendency for everyone to teach to the kind of student that they once were. It takes a conscious effort to get beyond that," Dr. Whitbeck said. "We're talking about things that weren't even errors when we had a different student body. The idea is to get students who, from an empowered position, can speak up about discouraging messages."

About 40 MIT faculty members and students are involved in ECSEL, Professor Wilson said. "We have about the widest participation [of any institution in the ECSEL coalition]. It's really rather exciting."

Next month, Ms. Lewis will take part in the first Student Leadership Conference in Baltimore, where ECSEL delegates like her will share their findings and strategies for change. "It'll be an opportunity for us to exchange ideas," she said. There are also plans to link women science and engineering faculty via en e-mail network within ECSEL and the other coalitions, she said.

Other outgrowths of ECSEL include a digital design course developed by Professor Donald Troxel of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science which is being exported to other universities; an outreach program headed by Professor Harry West of the Department of Mechanical Engineering to bring design courses to area high schools; and EDICS (Engineering Design Instructional Computer System), a multimedia program for teaching design methodology that was developed by a group headed by Professor Wilson.

A version of this article appeared in the November 3, 1993 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 12).

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