Penn State hosts DEI workshop on engineering curricula for Big Ten ++ schools

October 14, 2022

By Ashley WennersHerron

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State is welcoming representatives from 20 Big Ten ++ schools Oct. 16-18 to University Park to begin the strategic process of integrating the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) into engineering undergraduate curricula.

The DEI Summit: A Big Ten ++ Engineering Workshop is the next step in a yearslong process by engineering educators to incorporate DEI principles into the curriculum criteria that programs must meet to receive accreditation.

“It’s exciting to be in this moment: We have the opportunity to really make an impact,” said planning committee member Ivan Esparragoza, assistant dean for curricular innovation and program assessment in the Penn State College of Engineering. Esparragoza also directs the Engineering Technology and Commonwealth Engineering program across Penn State. “With this workshop, we will begin systematically addressing how to change culture across engineering education — it’s more than checking boxes for accreditation.”

ABET is the accrediting body that sets curriculum standards for engineering and engineering technology programs, among other subjects, across the globe. In 2017, ABET’s board of directors publicly announced the agency’s commitment to DEI and its expectation that accredited programs do the same. In June 2020, ABET published two letters condemning systematic racism and declaring that it aimed to drive accountability in STEM education by incorporating the “highest standards of professional integrity, dignity, equity, fairness, justice and respect for everyone.”

In March 2021, Big Ten + engineering deans, including Justin Schwartz, currently Penn State's interim executive vice president and provost, penned a letter of support to ABET, lauding the agency’s move to incorporate DEI into the general criteria for accrediting engineering programs.

“Equity in engineering education is key to producing excellent engineers,” Schwartz said. “The most innovative engineering solutions come from those who recognize and appreciate the value that comes from people with different experiences and backgrounds working to solve the same problem. By embedding this understanding in our curricula, students will sooner realize the real-world benefits of such collaborative approaches.”

Since receiving the letter, ABET has formally adopted common definitions of DEI and requested feedback on the proposed criteria changes, which are currently pending official approval.

In the weeks leading up to the workshop, participants were tasked with developing an initial plan to address how to incorporate the draft criteria in the curriculum for a specific program or unit in their school.

“This doesn’t mean transforming a technical course into a class on DEI,” Esparragoza said. “We’re working to identify and seize opportunities to emphasize how DEI threaded into the learning experience fosters both technically skilled and globally competent engineers.”

During the workshop, the teams will work together to refine their plans based on what they learn from one another and from two keynote speakers: Tracie Marcella Addy, associate dean of teaching and learning at Lafayette College, and Ebony Omotola McGee, professor of diversity and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

“The formal recognition of the importance of DEI in engineering is deeply motivating, especially because changing culture requires more than acknowledging that DEI is essential,” said Sarah Zappe, head of the planning committee, who is assistant dean for teaching and learning and director of the Leonhard Center in the Penn State College of Engineering. “This workshop will allow us to share and learn best practices as we develop a systematic, strategic approach to begin implementing the criteria changes.”

Penn State stakeholders will present on the college’s recently finalized Equity Action Plan, a strategic, sustainable iterative process to assess and reassess interventions to foster equity in engineering, according to Tonya Peeples, associate dean for outreach and inclusion in the College of Engineering.

“The Equity Action Plan provides a path for every person to help build a welcoming, inclusive academic community,” Peeples said, noting that it could be scaled to serve as a model for others, and it has built-in iterative reviews to incorporate lessons learned from other schools. “Every unit in our college is discussing equity and how to cultivate a culture of belonging for all. The plan aims to move people along the continuum of being leaders — they are identifying issues, suggesting solutions, doing the work and sharing what they learned.”

Sharing and assessing are twin keys for the plan and for the workshop, Zappe said.

“We structured the workshop to facilitate discussion and collaboration, but how do we know if we accomplished the goals of the workshop?” Zappe asked.

To objectively assess the impact of the workshop, an external evaluator will determine the effectiveness of the workshop. That report will be shared with the larger engineering education community, Zappe said, so that even those who did not attend the workshop may benefit from the outcomes. The team also is planning to develop future workshops to continue the work.

The full planning committee, which includes representatives from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Illinois, as well as a list of all participating schools, can be viewed on the workshop's website.


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College of Engineering Media Relations

“The formal recognition of the importance of DEI in engineering is deeply motivating, especially because changing culture requires more than acknowledging that DEI is essential." — Sarah Zappe