New Center at UT Austin Strives for Equity in Engineering
November 21, 2022
The engineering industry as a whole has struggled with issues of equity and representation for decades. A new center at the University of Texas at Austin is looking to change that academically by recruiting a more diverse group of students and working closely with universities that serve predominantly Hispanic and black students.
The new Center for Equality in Engineering aims to transform the culture at the Cockrell School of Engineering by making diversity, equity and inclusive work a collective charge at all levels, from students to faculty to staff and leadership. This work will become a regular part of everyone’s job duties, and the new center, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, will serve as the infrastructure to support it. The center brings together members of the Cockrell School’s Office of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI) and Texas Engineering Diversity and Engagement and includes participation from Cockrell School faculty and staff.
Roger Bonkage, Dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering, said, “At the Cockrell School we are fully committed to creating a welcoming, diverse and inclusive environment where students from all backgrounds feel safe and accepted in their pursuit of engineering. Let’s go.”
One of the main goals of the center is to bring the engineering student body closer to the demographics of the state’s population. There is an important distinction to overcome.
According to state population estimates, 45% of Texans between the ages of 18 and 24 are Hispanic. At the Cockrell School, Hispanic students represent 22% of engineering undergraduate students and only 7% of engineering graduate students. Black students represent approximately 5% of engineering undergraduate students and 2% of graduate students at the Cockrell School, compared to 13% of the population aged 18–24 in the state.
“We are a state institution, and we are here to serve residents of the state of Texas and beyond,” said Christine Julian, professor and associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the Cockrell School. “If we’re not doing it equally, we’re not doing our job.”
Recruiting and retaining a more diverse group of students is the primary method of bringing the student population in line with state demographics. On the recruiting side, this means reaching out to middle and high school students, as well as their families, to help them keep engineering at the top of their preparation for college.
On the retention side, center leaders want to take cues from institutions that have successfully served Black and Hispanic students for a long time. As part of the project, the researchers are working with teams from UT El Paso, UT San Antonio and Prairie View A&M University.
Center leaders want to learn from these institutions – what is working at these institutions to retain diverse groups of students, and how they can apply them at UT Austin.
“This is a timely and exciting opportunity for our School of Engineering and I am thrilled to work with colleagues who are most passionate about creating an inclusive learning environment for all of our students and a place where all faculty and staff long and thriving careers,” said Lydia Contreras, professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering and one of the center’s leaders.
There are three pillars of action within this larger goal of attracting and retaining students from diverse backgrounds:
- New and expanded student, staff and faculty learning opportunities to integrate equity across the university and into professional engineering settings, teaching and daily life. Examples of learning opportunities include faculty DEI workshops, leadership training in outreach, new undergraduate and graduate DEI certifications, and DEI training requirements.
- Support structures that value equity and create opportunities for participation in outreach and recruitment programs in developing new initiatives envisioned by members of the Texas engineering community. One example is a new DEI seed grant program to help faculty broaden participation among diverse groups in proposals to funding agencies.
- Improved and expanded expectations and accountability for all members of the Texas Engineering community, including revisions to student learning outcomes, the faculty review process, staff job descriptions, and recognition for above-and-beyond efforts.
The researchers plan to share what they have learned with others through presentations, workshops and publications so that best practices can be implemented elsewhere at the university and beyond.
They have already set the wheels in motion on a number of initiatives including the Seed Grant Program; hosting summer camps and open houses for K-12 students, incorporating new curricular elements; starting a counseling program for first year undergraduate students; planning site visits at partner institutions; Providing faculty and teaching assistants with resources for inclusive learning and participating in partnership with the Getting Ready for Advanced Degree Lab of the National GeM Consortium.
Raisa Douglas Farron (Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering), graduate student initiative in project area; Tyrone Porter (Biomedical Engineering) and Masa Prodanovic (Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering) graduate students; Gabriella Koloyan Fleming (Center for Equity in Engineering), Staff; Audrey Boklaj (Center for Engineering Education) and Lydia Contreras (Chemical Engineering), Faculty; Maura Borrego (Mechanical Engineering and Center for Engineering Education), Research. The External Advisory Board includes Ben Flores from the University of Texas El Paso; Darren Kelly from UT Austin’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement; Pamela Obiomon from Prairie View A&M University; Mark Appleford from the University of Texas San Antonio; and Sarah Rodriguez Jones, Virginia Tech.