In the fairy tale the “Pied Piper of Hamelin,” the piper used his magical pipe to lead the rats away from the town. I often wish I had a magical pipe to lead students to exploring engineering as a major.
Some say there is no shortage of engineers in the U.S. While one can discuss the merits of that argument, let’s be clear about the fact that there is a shortage of engineers from female and minority backgrounds. Diversity and inclusiveness are essential in this field – both in gender and in ethnicity.
On August 4, the White House was given a letter from the American Society Engineering Education (ASEE) signed by more than 100 deans of engineering across the country. I was among the people who felt strongly enough about the subject to make sure that the White House took notice.
The letter outlined our commitments to diversity and inclusiveness; the development of K-12 or community college pipeline activities; and the implementation of strategies to increase the numbers of women and underrepresented minorities in our faculties. Most importantly, the deans agreed to hold ourselves accountable to these pledges by making sure we assess our commitments and actions to determine if we were able to bring about real change.
Attracting women and minorities to engineering (and to other STEM fields), is essential to maintaining America’s position as a leader in technology innovation. With a homogeneous set of individuals on a team, potential solutions are inherently limited. For innovation to work well, a broad spectrum of ideas is needed.
In the world of atoms and numbers, does the race or gender of the person who studies them really matter? Yes, it does. Corporate leaders tend to agree on the influence of diversity on innovation. Forbes magazine surveyed 321 big-company executives on the topic in 2011. Eighty-five percent said that “a diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that drive innovation.”
One company has already stepped up to assist our efforts at Georgia Tech. Intel has set an aggressive goal of dramatically increasing the diversity of its U.S. workforce and has pledged $300 million over the next five years to fund the hiring of underrepresented minorities. Georgia Tech is the first higher education institution to partner with Intel on this initiative. With Intel’s financial commitment, we expect to support 1,000 underrepresented minority students interested in engineering from high school through graduate school.
I am proud that at Georgia Tech, we have produced the most women, African-American and minority engineers at all degree levels combined over the past decade. But we can, and will, do more.
For our nation to make up ground, we need to make history. The higher education and private sectors must combine forces for the purpose of expanding the capacity of underrepresented minorities and women in engineering. Stand-alone initiatives will not solve the problem. We need to coalesce around the issue, not compete with each other. If we can enhance the participation of all demographics, then the students, our institutions, and our nation will be the winners.
We can lead in this initiative, but others must follow. While the magical pipe would come in handy, we will instead issue a call for action. With the proper amount of resources and national will, we can succeed.