It might sound like a “little quip” of a statement, said Dr. Deb Besser, the director of the University of St. Thomas Center for Engineering Education, but achieving better diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics departments is much easier with role models in place.
In short: “You can’t be it if you can’t see it,” said Besser.
That's been the difficulty in diversifying STEM in the workplace, said Besser. Only a small share of people working in STEM disciplines are women, people of color, or members of other marginalized groups, she said.
But at St. Thomas, the School of Engineering is aiming to do its part to advance diversity in the workplace, starting with enrolling more women and more students of color. In fact, the 2021-22 academic school year has been its most diverse ever. Nearly 25% of undergraduate students enrolled at the School of Engineering identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color, up from about 17% in 2018. Whereas enrolled women represent 23%, up from 19% four years ago. The university overall aims to increase the percentage of students of color in the total student population to 32% by 2025.
At the graduate level, the School of Engineering's software and data science programs attract a high percentage of women and people of color. Its programs, scholarships and partnerships with industry leaders allow the school to recruit and retain a diverse body of students. For one, Minneapolis-based software and data analytics company phData partnered with St. Thomas and awarded scholarships to two female graduate students enrolled in the school’s software of data science master’s program. The goal of this program is to support women, especially BIPOC women, in pursuing careers in STEM, said Marilou Chanrasmi, learning and development consultant at phData.
“If we’re not seeing women, or BIPOC women, in STEM fields, then how are students going to think about going into those fields?” Chanrasmi said. “This is why it is so important to have representation.”
One of this year’s recipients, first-generation college student Tameka Cannon, said that she felt like a lot of the things she went through growing up were hard because she didn’t have anyone teaching her how to “navigate the world.” She wants to change that for others after she graduates. She said she hopes to find a local program to mentor “the next generation of women in technology,” and use her degree to improve health disparities in underrepresented communities.
There are fewer women of color in the field than there are white women. According to the National Science Board, women make up 47% of the current workforce but only 28% of the current science and engineering workforce. Of this percentage, women of color comprise about 5%.
An effort to decrease the disparity is one of the reasons St. Thomas is on a mission to increase the number of women and Black people in STEM courses at the university. For them to have opportunities to socialize with each other and hear guest speakers who look like them is part of the retention plan. At the university, engineering students, for example, are members of local chapters of groups like the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Society of Women Engineers.
These groups provide comfortable spaces and support members, as well as act as success stories of students from underrepresented peoples earning an education in STEM that works as a powerful recruiting tool.
“[National Society of Black Engineers] meetings reassure me that I am not alone, that there are other engineers who look like me and go through the same experience,” said senior Kevyn Perkins, a member of the National Society of Black Engineers who is also an electrical engineering major, physics minor and president of the Black Empowerment Student Alliance. “It's a safe space where you can have fun, be your authentic self, there's food, you're just chillin’ and doing engineering work.”
The Black engineers’ group also has working engineers visit as guest speakers so students can see someone that looks like them who is already a professional. At the end of February, the group held a soul food dinner.
Perkins, who also was recently selected by peers, faculty and staff as the year’s Tommie Award winner, understands the need to lift up others. “He embraced the role of mentor, working with the various programs to help facilitate the transition of students of color into the university and serving as an ambassador and truth teller about the ways in which we could improve our community by elevating our commitment not simply to diversity but diversity, equity and inclusion,” said one of his mentors, Dr. Yohuru Williams, founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at St. Thomas.
Perkins, who is set to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the spring, was plucked for an internship with Boston Scientific. He worked there as a facilities project engineer where he planned, designed, and oversaw the reconfiguration, maintenance, and alteration of equipment, machinery, buildings, structures, and other facilities. Such internships is one way that St. Thomas is able to attract students.
Another way to recruit a more diverse pool of engineering students is to recruit more diverse STEM professors, said Besser. Also, no matter who the professor is, creating a welcoming classroom for all students goes a long way.
“We have some really diverse faculty, which is awesome, and I think we continue to make great strides there as well,” said Besser. “Compared to maybe 10 years ago, there is an understanding that we simply need to be much more thoughtful and dedicated to how we are thinking about the recruitment of students, retaining students, and what that means in terms of faculty, and how we are advising and how we are drawing students into our research, our clubs, our leadership positions, internships, how we drive students to scholarships. And when we first meet them on campus and they are thinking about coming to St. Thomas, having an honest conversation about this is where we are in terms of diversity, and we are working really hard to build some great programs, mechanisms, and tools to bring everybody into our community.”
Summer Nie, another data science master’s degree student who was also a recipient of a phData scholarship, said, “I’m really proud of being a Tommie.” She added that she wants to apply her data science skills to do research on topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion to “promote awareness of these matters.”
Prospective STEM majors interested in an opportunity to see others like them in places like the School of Engineering is at the Senior Design Clinic on May 6, said Besser. During this time, engineering students will display their senior projects for other students.