HOUGHTON — Michigan Technological University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics is one of five mechanical engineering departments nationwide selected by the National Science Foundation to participate in a new diversity training program. The others are Purdue, Oregon State, Texas Tech and the University of Oklahoma.
The NSF program is called Transforming Engineering Culture to Advance Inclusion and Diversity. The program’s goal is to diversify mechanical engineering education, making it more inclusive of women and under-represented minorities.
Michigan Tech’s mechanical engineering department applied for the program because it wants to increase the diversity of its undergraduate students. Yet despite the department’s best efforts, it has had little success increasing undergraduate diversity, going from 3.9 percent under-represented minorities and 8.7 percent women in fall 2009 to 5.1 percent under-represented minorities and 11.8 percent women in fall 2014.
In a letter endorsing the mechanical engineering department’s application for TECAID, Wayne Pennington, dean of the Michigan Tech College of Engineering, wrote that the college has made “significant strides in diversifying our faculty and student body, particularly the representation of women. In disciplines such as mechanical and electrical engineering, however, the gains have been very small.”
The mechanical engineering department’s winning application focused on its new curriculum, including a shift to project-based mechanical engineering practice courses in which students work as teams to tackle open-ended problems that more closely resemble the practice of engineering in the professional world. The new curriculum launched in fall 2014.
“Cultural differences on teams can lead to miscommunication and feelings of frustration and resentment,” a team led by Greg Odegard, associate chair and director of undergraduate studies, wrote in their TECAID application. “We want our students to learn the importance of actively forming teams that are diverse in terms of ethnic background, gender and perspective. By valuing diversity and inclusiveness, they will be better mechanical engineers.”
Through its TECAID activities, Tech’s mechanical engineering department hopes to become a model for other departments at Michigan Tech and for mechanical engineering departments across the nation.
The team guiding the TECAID program, in addition to Odegard, includes Bill Predebon, chair of mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics; Nancy Bar, communications and senior design program advisor; Professor Brad King, director of research; and Professor Michele Miller.