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We must increase diversity in the field of engineering. Here's what we're doing to make it so.

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March 2016

The initiatives outlined by SoE-Future will shape the school for years to come. Perhaps the most important efforts, the ones that will be hardest to execute, and the ones that will have the greatest impact in the long term, will bring about changes to our culture. And top of the list for urgent and important cultural change is to increase diversity in the discipline of engineering.

Why is this so? Diversity is of course important from an ethical and moral standpoint. But diversity is also critical to what we are trying to achieve. Simply put, diversity is about being successful. Diverse teams are stronger teams, they are better teams, they are more effective teams at solving the kinds of complex problems we are tackling at the School of Engineering. Having a diverse set of points of view, approaches and skill sets will get to the best solution faster.

With this in mind, we have begun to change the way we do business to ensure we are promoting and fostering a culture to support diversity. Some things seem obvious, some things are more difficult, but we believe that the key is to review everything we do through the lens that considers diversity a priority. There is no single solution.

First, we are pushing hard at both the undergraduate and graduate level to improve the diversity of the engineering pipeline. At the undergraduate level we know that one hurdle for some Stanford students who may want to major in a STEM field is that they did not have access in high school to courses that many of our students could take for granted. So, in the Engineering core courses, and in partnership with Physics, Math, ICME and Chemistry, we are investing in companion courses that build skills and confidence in critical areas. We want to make sure that any one of the spectacular undergraduate students who comes to Stanford and wants to major in engineering has the opportunity and support to do so. 

For example, during the winter quarter of their freshman year, about 550 students will sign up for Physics 41: Mechanics. This course is required for engineering. As you might imagine, the students come into the class with a wide variety of preparation, and the course covers a lot of material and moves fast. A few years ago, the Physics department started offering a companion course to Physics 41 to provide extra support for students who didn’t have the opportunity to have great physics or math in high school. The companion course is called 41A, and I now teach it. I have 55 fantastic students in my class this winter. These students are admitted to Stanford for a reason - of course they are smart, but they also possess grit, initiative and persistence . a powerful combination. These are exactly the students we need for the future of the field. The students self-select to take the course, and interestingly, the class ends up being about two-thirds women and half students of color.

We also are working to ensure an open pipeline of diverse engineers into the profession by expanding a program started by Jim Plummer that provides needs-based scholarships to Stanford undergraduates who want to get a master’s degree in engineering. About 40% of our engineering students want to stay for a fifth year and get a coterminal master’s degree. Stanford’s generous undergraduate financial aid ends after year four, which means that the fifth-year coterm program becomes a “wealth selector” and student diversity drops sharply. With additional needs-based financial aid, we can support more students who want to get the master’s degree. An increase in aid will increase the diversity of our master’s program, expand the educational opportunities for our spectacular undergraduates, be a pipeline for PhD programs around the country and increase both the absolute number and diversity of the engineers we prepare for their careers.

In parallel, we are working to increase the diversity of our PhD population. We are looking to the success of Stanford’s undergraduate admissions process to understand how to best do this. On the recruiting side, we are offering more financial aid so that we can compete for these highly talented students. In addition, our faculty are seeking opportunities to meet diverse undergraduates when they visit other universities - students who may not have otherwise considered Stanford an option. We are also spending time at historically black colleges to make sure that students are aware of the options and see there can be a place for them at Stanford.

Finally, the number of female and underrepresented minority faculty is increasing but too slowly. Again, there is no single solution. We are working to make our faculty search process more all-encompassing and flexible to ensure we’re not missing viable candidates and that we’re doing everything we can to attract the best faculty and scholars from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. For instance, the deans are now going to every search committee in the School of Engineering and we explicitly encourage hiring not just on demonstrated achievement, but on potential. We are also talking more about unintended biases that creep into the hiring process because we know that if we cannot talk about difficult issues, they are not going to get fixed.

Engineering has never been so powerful. As it explicitly tackles more complex societal problems, the field is becoming more attractive to a greater number and a wider variety of students. For decades, about 20% of Stanford undergraduates have chosen to major in some form of engineering. In the last six years, that number has almost doubled. We are seeing similar enthusiasm for our graduate programs. Now is the time to leverage that interest and increase the diversity of engineering - and with your help, we will. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions about how we can ensure that the individuals that we bring into the School of Engineering - both as educators and as students - have the diversity we need to find solutions to the world’s most complex challenges.
 

Persis Drell

Frederick Emmons Terman Dean, Stanford School of Engineering 
James and Anna Marie Spilker Professor in the School of Engineering
​Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and Physics, Stanford University