Bridging Together Technical and Social Worlds

Written By Emily Liptow, CSU STEM VISTA Member 2015-17 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

12803200_10153427471656381_8061855602720549735_n.jpgI remember quite clearly a moment early in my undergraduate studies when I first became distraught at the social-technical divide that pervades our education system and society at large. I was excited to be taking one of my very first Industrial Engineering classes where we were exposed to some of the basic principles of the field. In one of the first weeks of class, our professor provided a brief history of Industrial Engineering, introducing us to Frederick Taylor who is considered the father of the field. Taylor is known for his contributions to industrial efficiency and development of time studies and Scientific Management.

Just a few weeks after learning about Taylor in my engineering class, we met again in a very different context. I was taking a class on the sociology of work and employment, and we had just begun learning about the formation of unions around the time of the industrial revolution. We learned of the abuses many workers faced as manufacturing companies focused on production, efficiency, and the bottom line. Taylor’s ideology of management largely contributed to the dehumanization of workers, reducing them to cogs within the manufacturing process.

When I returned to my engineering class, I couldn’t help but to wonder why we didn’t learn about this side of Industrial Engineering. How could we not acknowledge the dehumanization and abuse that was intertwined with development of our field? I felt that my engineering classmates were given such a narrow view of the development of Industrial Engineering, free from any political or social context. As someone committed to social justice, this bothered me deeply and left me hungry for more perspective.

Throughout undergraduate career, I remained active with social justice student organizations and pursued extra classes in sociology. While I pursued these opportunities to learn about social and political systems, they rarely intersected with my engineering studies.

IMG_8219.JPGIt wasn’t until my experience as an AmeriCorps VISTA at Cal Poly that I was able to more clearly combine my passion for social justice with engineering. During my almost two years at Cal Poly, I have worked on a variety of initiatives promoting diversity and inclusion in engineering. I have supported many efforts to disrupt the obstacles that further marginalize women, people of color, and low-income students through program development, training offerings, and action-oriented research projects.

In addition to supporting diversity in engineering, I have also been a part of efforts to broaden what it means to be an engineer by incorporating more social context. This past fall quarter, I helped develop and teach a one-unit engineering professionalism course in which students developed skills to be successful in their search for internships, jobs, graduate school, and other post-graduation endeavors. In this course, we infused activities to help students develop strong engineering identities and explore issues that they would like to solve as engineers. We emphasized the importance of giving back and engaging communities in engineering projects and addressed topics such as unconscious bias and corporate social responsibility. The class was designed to broaden students’ perception of what they can do with their engineering degree and to encourage them to think about the impact they want to have on the world. Designing this course was such a fun and rewarding experience, especially because it was something I probably would have benefited from when I was in school.

I’ve also been supporting an action-oriented research initiative, Advancing Cultural Change, which seeks to understand the cultures of STEM majors on campus while working to catalyze inclusive cultural change on campus. Through this ethnographic research, we have learned how many students experience bias based on their gender, race, and major. From our data, we’ve created case studies to capture these experiences with bias. These case studies are then used in classrooms and workshops to disseminate our data and empower students to disrupt bias when they see or experience it. We’ve facilitated case study discussions in some engineering classrooms which has been an eye opening experience for many students. It can be challenging to convince engineers that these topics are very important, but overall I have really enjoyed engaging engineers in dialogue around bias and diversity.

Emily_Aspirational.jpegOne thing that I have really loved about my experience at Cal Poly has been working with people across so many different disciplines. Often, higher education can feel very siloed, but as a VISTA, I have served as a bridge between many different departments and programs. I work with a variety of faculty across many disciplines– anthropology, materials engineering, ethnic studies, physics, science and technology studies, women’s and gender studies — all of whom are committed to equity in engineering.

I am so grateful to be a part of such exciting multidisciplinary projects and I look forward to continuing this kind of work post-VISTA.


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