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Engineering for all

Giving equity, diversity and inclusion an 'intentional focus'

Teaching and Learning

By Ryan Howell

Instructors in Memorial’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science are intent on teaching their students more than just the technical skills.

Topics such as equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) are required to be covered by the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board, but Dr. Janna Rosales and her colleague Prof. Darlene Spracklin-Reid bring a “more intentional focus” on weaving these concepts throughout the curriculum.

“Engineers design and maintain so many systems that shape our lives, and whether the students realize it or not, there are values that get baked into these designs,” Dr. Rosales said. “There are so many social, cultural and political values that go into technology and infrastructure, and it’s really important that our students become conscious of those values so that they can make more informed and responsible design decisions.”

‘Who are you engineering for?’

Dr. Rosales and Ms. Spracklin-Reid collaboratively teach two mandatory engineering professionalism courses. One way they introduce EDI concepts is by asking a question that seems simple on the surface – who are you engineering for?

“That question really makes you think about what you’re doing and what the implications are,” Dr. Rosales explained. “There are multiple dimensions to it — who are you designing for, and who are you as a designer? The first part is a reality check for whether you understand what users and clients need. We get students to come up with examples from their own lives of designs they find frustrating or ineffective to use, everything from tools made only for right-handed people to inaccessible bathroom stalls to confusing car dashboards.”

She says those kinds of questions help students think about biases or assumptions that designers might hold about their users and clients.

“It’s about feeling included and valued.” — Dr. Janna Rosales

The other dimension gets students to do some reflection about who they are as a designer and how their own identity relates to the questions they ask and how they go about framing problems.

Dr. Rosales says in addition to thinking about who the designs are for, it’s important to have diverse representation on the design team itself.

“Fields like engineering have been taking a hard look at who is under-represented in the profession. And while in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math) we often focus on increasing participation of women and other minority groups, being represented isn’t enough. It’s about feeling included and valued.”

Culture shift

It has taken some time to change the culture in engineering, but Dr. Rosales says the faculty works hard to show students that EDI is a crucial topic by requiring the professionalism courses to be taken in both the second and graduating year of their studies.

She says that students are often so caught up in the technical side of things that they just don’t have a lot of time and space to talk about topics like EDI.

“We talk about identity, but also about power and privilege in engineering.” — Dr. Janna Rosales

“But we do find that when given the chance, they are receptive to these conversations. We talk about identity, but also about power and privilege in engineering. The professionalism courses give all engineering students a chance to step back and think about why EDI matters, and we’ve been opening up more opportunities through other elective courses, too.”

Those efforts are paying off.

Last year, a group of mechanical engineering students placed second in a national design competition for their efforts to create a damped medical arm brace for a young girl with athetoid cerebral palsy for their capstone project.

Dr. Rosales says its a perfect example of engineering being used for the greater good.

“Projects like that really open the scope of what engineering is. It’s great to see student teams being recognized for focusing on things like accessibility. There are a lot more opportunities coming up through engineering education and through inclusive design principles that help people explore EDI.”

Dean’s Award recipient

EDI matters in teaching, too: Dr. Rosales was the 2021 recipient of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science’s Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence, in part due to her efforts to promote and advocate for EDI in engineering.

It was undoubtedly an honour, she says. but insists it’s a team effort from both fellow faculty and the insights and appreciation that her students offer.

“We’ve had a number of different professors expand the idea of what engineering problems look like and who engineering is for,” she said. “We have courses on sustainable development, technology and ethics, and biomedical engineering, all of which have been good places to help students learn about EDI. And the students are seeing on the news and in their work terms how much EDI needs to be part of the conversation, so the more that message gets to students throughout their program, the more it broadens everyone’s understanding of EDI in engineering.”


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