By Lea Sparkman
The Stanford School of Engineering has announced a new course, Engineering 311C: Expanding Engineering Limits: Culture, Diversity, and Gender (ENGR 311C), for this fall, which will investigate the topics of culture, diversity and gender with respect to the engineering world. The course features a partnership with Aachen University in Germany, providing the class with the opportunity to discuss international perspectives on prevalent topics.
The course was created in order to educate engineers about aspects of the engineering sphere such as gender ratios and inherent biases. According to mechanical engineering professor Sheri Sheppard, a co-instructor of ENGR 311C, engineering students are rarely made aware of the extensive research and literature regarding such topics within their fields.
“The framing of everything we’re doing is around engineering,” Sheppard said.
However, she also explained that the new course blends a more technical mindset with a humanities one. Sheppard hopes that the course will ultimately allow students to characterize and navigate their role within the engineering world.
“There isn’t enough collaboration… between the two [humanities and engineering fields],” said Carol Muller M.A. ’81 Ph.D. ’85, co-instructor and executive director of Women In Science and Engineering (WISE) Ventures at Stanford. “[This course is] an opportunity to bring together some research from both of those areas and also to have people think in cross-cultural contexts.”
The course will begin with a discussion of the definitions of gender, sex and culture and then will branch into the influence of cultural definitions within the engineering world. As the class progresses, students will discuss more specifically how cultural or gender biases influence product design and development.
“People who are designing for… other people assume that all people are like themselves,” Muller said. “Designs for solutions – whether for technology or scientific inquiry – miss the mark.”
Among other topics, the course will discuss how generating diversity within the engineering fields may eventually lead to improved solutions.
The application-based class, a blend of 15 undergraduate and graduate students, will engage in a two-part discussion of the course’s topics. Students may choose between taking the course for one or two units and would meet weekly or bi-weekly, respectively.
While Tuesday classes, required for all students, will focus on assigned reading and host speakers, Thursday classes – part of the two-unit course – will allow participants to investigate gender, diversity and culture within the engineering world for themselves through self-created group research projects.
These projects can range from an analysis of the cultural influences involved in choosing a major, or analyzing potential gender biases in the University’s engineering handbook. Muller explained that she looks forward to learning which topics attract students’ interests.
“We have no way of completely predicting [what projects come out of this class],” she said.
To add a global perspective to the conversation about diversity within engineering, a parallel course to the one offered at Stanford will be held at Aachen University in Germany. Students at both schools will participate in joint lectures and discussions, as well as collaborate on a final research project together. Students from Aachen will visit Stanford for the first week of school and will stay connected via live video streaming throughout the remainder of the course, providing a constant international angle in discussions.
“I think [the diverse environment] means that we’ll need to recognize that there’s a lumpiness in backgrounds, that there’s pockets of expertise in different ways,” Sheppard said. She adds that she and her fellow facilitators “will need to draw that out of our students.”
The co-instructors both explained that they would love to see the influence of this course expand beyond the fall quarter. Sheppard hopes that students write papers about their chosen research topics, and co-instructor and consulting associate professor at the School of Engineering Shannon Gilmartin ’94 hopes that the class will be offered “on a more standard basis.”
“It would be fabulous to see this course take off, perhaps be offered over multiple quarters,” Gilmartin said.
“I’m intrigued to see what kinds of conversations will emerge as a result of each class, but also as a result of the whole course about future curriculums, future research, future projects,” Muller added. “I think it’s a great way of priming the pump to have more of these discussions.”
Contact Lea Sparkman at 16lsparkman ‘at’ castilleja.org.