The underrepresentation of women and underrepresented minorities (URM, def. non-White, non-Asian) in the engineering pipeline can be attributed to a multitude of factors, including, but not limited to, insufficient preparation and barriers in recruiting into engineering programs at the K-12 level, low self-efficacy, lack of peer support, inadequate academic advising or faculty support, harmful stereotypes of particular groups that influence interactions in classrooms or in peer groups, and a chilly or unappealing climate. The numerous “leaks” in the pipeline along with the sheer variety of established causes lead many institutions, including our own, to take a scattershot and therefore marginally effective approach to promoting diversity and inclusion.
In this paper, we will demonstrate that the Engineering Design Process (EDP) provides an effective framework for goal-setting and developing targeted interventions to substantively advance diversity and inclusion at the undergraduate and graduate levels. We present this work in the form of a 3-year case study at our own institution, a mid-sized, research-focused, land grant university on the US East Coast with student demographics (gender, racial) that reflect national trends. Our EDP framework consists of three steps: (1) Defining the problem; (2) Developing multiple unique and viable concepts; and (3) Iteratively designing, implementing, and refining or abandoning interventions based on formative evaluations. We began in Phase 1 of EDP by defining the issue of diversity at our institution relative to other engineering programs nationally using publically available data on graduation and retention rates. To assess climate issues, we conducted in-depth focus groups of women, URMs, and majority undergraduate and graduate students; and we folded the common themes from these focus groups into annual surveys. These data were used to establish clear metrics and target values for gender and racial diversity across our graduate programs and within each undergraduate department.
Phase 2 of our EDP involved generating multiple unique and viable interventions that addressed the disparities in recruitment and retention identified in Phase 1. Both working groups engaged in a lengthy phases of divergent concept generation by conducting extensive literature reviews, familiarizing themselves with the educational and social psychology literature around diversity and inclusion in STEM, and benchmarking interventions from other institutions. Early concepts were organized using a novel tool that clusters interventions by area of impact (recruitment or retention) and “activation energy” (economic and political cost).
Phase 3 of the EDP, which is ongoing as of this publication, involves implementation and continuous, formative evaluation of interventions clustered into three Specific Aims: (1) Recruitment, (2) Retention; and (3) Cultural Change. At present, the undergraduate working group has operationalized approximately 80% of the specific interventions clustered in Aims 1 and 2 above and 30% in Aim 3. Based on evaluation data, 10% of the interventions have been discontinued, with an additional 20% being substantially modified based on early results. Both working groups are continuously reviewing admissions data to assess impact on recruitment and leveraging focus group and survey data to monitor student climate.
This case study represents the first explicit use of the Engineering Design Process (EDP) to develop a comprehensive plan to address diversity and inclusion at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Given how daunting diversity issues can sometimes appear, we have found that framing and addressing this issue like engineers and explicitly using the EDP has made the process of goal setting, intervention, and evaluation remarkably clear. The overall process and specific tools presented in this case study may be easily extended to other institutions.