CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — In 1955, soon after the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Robert Bland entered the University of Virginia. He would become the University's first African-American undergraduate student to earn a degree from the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
When Bland began his studies, he thought that he would soon be joined by a large number of fellow African-American students.
"I expected that once that barrier was removed, the floodgates would open and all those students who had been denied admission would begin to apply and get accepted," Bland said Thursday during a panel discussion hosted by the Engineering School, part of the University's Martin Luther King Day observances. "That growth didn't happen quite the way I anticipated."
During his four years as a student, just seven black undergraduate students were at the University, he said, noting that the integration of more African-American students was slow in the years following his graduation because of a lack of meaningful integration in primary and secondary public schools. He said the problem continues today for other underrepresented populations, including students from impoverished rural and urban areas, because these students are not properly prepared or motivated to pursue higher education, especially in science and engineering. He advocated creating more dynamic relationships among all levels of education to help increase the number of students who can succeed in higher education.
While great strides have been made to achieve diversity at the University and the Engineering School, Bland and fellow presenters at the "I Have a Dream: Visions of Engineering in the 21st Century" discussion agreed much work remains.
The Center for Diversity in Engineering organized the event.
"The work of attracting larger numbers of underrepresented populations to science and engineering begins with conversations such as this," the center's director, Carolyn Vallas, said. "I believe that the passion and knowledge of our panelists will inspire action that will help the Engineering School continue its pursuit of creating a truly diverse environment for students."
The panel offered viewpoints from women, an African-American faculty member and female student, an American Indian undergraduate student, a Hispanic graduate student and white males. Brief presentations by the panelists were followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience.
William Wulf, the AT&T Professor of Computer Science and University Professor and former president of the National Academy of Engineering, discussed how engineering can be strengthened by infusing it with a variety of viewpoints. The diversity debate, he said, is often framed by Americans' sensitivity to fairness and equity. Others, he said, argue that greater diversity will help replenish the pool of future engineers. While Wulf agreed those arguments are valid, he held that the primary reason to promote diversity in engineering is to improve its quality.
"Men, women, people of color and disabled people experience life differently, so they know different things," he said. "That collection of things is the gene pool for really creative engineering. "
James Aylor, dean of the Engineering School, gave an overview of the school's diversity and also stressed its importance in 21st century engineering. Aylor, who earned his bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering in the late 1960s and '70s, was a student when the University first admitted women.
"When companies are looking to hire new graduates, technical excellence is considered a given," he said. "Today, employers are expecting so much more. They need engineers who are able to develop technologies in teams, those who have business management and leadership skills and an understanding of the environment and economy. It's a global world that requires diversity."
The Engineering School's student body is about 30 percent female – much higher than the 18 percent national average – and the school works to attract women and underrepresented populations to the field. Over the past four years, the numbers of African-American and Hispanic students in incoming classes have both grown by about 20 percent, though each group makes up less than 6 percent of each class.
Edward Botchwey, an associate professor of biomedical engineering who recently won a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, told the audience about his experience as a young black man overcoming his fears to pursue a career as a biomedical engineering professor and researcher. He credits a mentor at the University of Pennsylvania for giving him the confidence to pursue a career for which he was passionate and well qualified.
The mentor recommended making full use of the resources available in a university setting, everything from help in writing research proposals to fellowship with peers.
Since coming to U.Va., Botchwey said he has benefitted from a welcoming atmosphere and the University Teaching Fellows and Leadership in Academics programs, which offered a venue for talking openly and sorting through his concerns as an African-American faculty member. He recommends strengthening such programs to improve opportunities for faculty members who may have an experience similar to his own.
Student Loren Murphy, a fourth-year biomedical engineering major and president of the U.Va. Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers, explained that African-American youths lack science and engineering role models, and some high schools don't provide adequate math and science education. Black students who are accepted into the Engineering School sometimes transfer after they are overwhelmed by the math courses in the first semester, she said.
To address these issues, Murphy and fellow society members created a junior National Society of Black Engineers at Jack Jouett Middle School in Albemarle County, and they use experiments to introduce the youngsters to engineering. The group also offers a retention program for current students, including tutoring, mentoring and career workshops.
Pam Norris, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and chair of the U.Va. Women's Leadership Council, told the audience that, while single men and women achieve at about the same rates in academia, women with children succeed at just half the rate of men with children.
Improving child care services offered through the University is one way to give greater opportunities to women faculty members who are balancing family life with the rigors of a tenure-track position that requires time for teaching and research, she said.
As for promoting engineering to young women, she said, education leaders need to do a better a job of describing the work of engineers. Research has shown that young women go into medicine more readily than engineering because they want to help people. Norris believes that more young women would be attracted to engineering if they understood how their work could benefit large numbers of people.
A colleague, she said, designed seatbelt systems for automobiles that could save millions of lives.
"He has the ability to save more lives by one good design than a doctor could in an entire lifetime," Norris said. "That's engineering with an impact."
Caroline Higgins, a fourth-year biomedical engineering student and president of the U.Va Chapter of the Society of Women Engineers, said her group holds a variety of outreach events, including an overnight camp held each spring for 70 high school girls in the region. During the camp, society members conduct experiments with the students and explain the college experience. She said that a significant number of girls who attended the camp have gone on to become students at the Engineering School.
The society is also working with local Girl Scout troops and elementary schools to reach younger students.
Andrew Johns, a third-year mechanical engineering major, is one of the Engineering School's five American Indian students. American Indians account for only 1.5 percent of the U.S. population; of that narrow segment, fewer than 71 percent of American Indian students finish high school, and of that smaller group, only 11 percent go on to higher education, according to a 2005 study. Just one-third of those students who go to college seek degrees in science and engineering, he said.
Johns and fellow members of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society recently traveled to a national convention in Albuquerque, N.M., and learned ways to help increase their membership numbers as well as attract higher numbers of American Indian students to science and engineering fields.
The audience was reminded that the challenge of promoting diversity in education is not unique to the United States. Ernie Perez-Almodovar, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering, plans to return to his native Puerto Rico.
He told the audience that the University of Puerto Rico recently raised tuition by more than 100 percent, effectively pricing out poorer students. Noting that some of those who protested the tuition increase were arrested, he shared an adaption of Martin Luther King's words.
"'A time comes when silence is betrayal,'" he quoted King.
"I will add that a time comes when silence and inaction are betrayal," Perez concluded.