…the future of STEM diversity.

mar 26

Improving Diversity: What’s working at Georgia Tech

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to serve on a career panel for the inaugural Berkeley Engineering Stars in Technology (BEST) workshop. This year’s workshop focused on accomplishments and challenges faced by African-American engineers (as part of the African-American Initiative at Berkeley).

The career panel consisted of faculty member (myself and Dr. Gary May) and two recent Berkeley graduates (Omotayo Olukoya and Tsion Behailu) who have moved onto careers at Twitter and Google, respectively. During the panel we shared our success stories and answered questions from current undergraduate and graduate students. Answering these questions can be quite challenging — How do you deal with imposter syndrome? How do you avoid being the ‘go to person’ about diversity and how does that affect how people see your work? How do you deal with being the only woman or African-American in your group? (Sadly, in engineering being the only woman on a project is still quite common.)

BEST Panel

Although I consider my ‘success story’ still a work in progress, it was great to hear about Gary May’s experience with diversity around him has changed from the 1980’s to today. Dr. Gary May addressed many of these questions in further detail during his keynote address (How Far We’ve Come; How Far we Have to Go). During his Kuh Distinguished Lecture, Dr. May shared his personal story — from being one of the first African-American graduate students in engineering at UC Berkeley, to becoming the Dean of Engineering at Georgia Tech.

How Far We Have to Go

As a graduate student in 1980s Dr. May was one of the only African-American graduate students in engineering at the time. After 20 or 30 years, one would think the situation would be much better. Unfortunately, I have received questions and heard concerns from current students about feeling isolated due to being one of (or more likely, the only) student of color in their classes, suggesting that the situation hasn’t improved greatly.

Engineering classes are tough — feeling like the outsider in an engineering class can make it feel impossible. Fortunately, these students can find some support through engineering student groups for Black students (i.e., BESSA or BGESS at Berkeley) or Hispanic students (HES). Note that most universities probably use the same name as the professional society: NSBE and SHPE, respectively.

On the bright side there has been a lot of effort in the last 5-10 years by universities to improve the diversity of their student body and faculty. It’s hard to move the needle on these metrics for many reasons. For example, professors are not hired that often, and having a critical mass (be it the number of women or under-represented minorities) can be important for recruiting and maintaining a diverse student body.

Gary May Talk

How Far We’ve Come

In all of his years of working to improve diversity Dr. May has found that support through mentorship has had a much greater impact on improving diversity than financial support (no one’s saying finanical support isn’t a nice bonus though). Therefore, much of May’s work at Georgia Tech has focused on the importance of good role models and mentorship.

To improve diversity in the engineering student body at Georgia Tech, May started multiple programs that target different student populations. For example, the RISE Scholarship gives a relatively small scholarship to rising undergraduate student and provides mentorship to guide these students to become future leaders in their field. Similarly, the SURE program targets under-represented students in STEM to provide research experience and knowledge about what it means to go to graduate school. All of the programs mentioned had some element of mentorship included in the program.

All of this work has resulted in Georgia Tech being the top university in the United States for awarding PhDs to students of under-represented minority groups. In the last 15 years, they have awarded 433 PhDs to under-represented minorities — 32 of whom have gone on to become professors elsewhere. Currently, African-Americans only represent 3.7% of the full-time PhD faculty, while Hispanics represent 4.5%. Hopefully, univeristy outreach and mentorship will help move the needle in improving the diversity of the engineering student body of tomorrow.

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“Encourage young people that they are worthy and that they do belong." —Dr. Gary May

Check out the full talk on YouTube:

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