UB engineering joins White House to promote diversity in tech sector

Jennifer Zirnheld, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering, works with a student from Westminster Community Charter School. Credit: Onion Studio.

Release Date: August 11, 2015

“We must promote engineering education to those historically underrepresented, provide an experience that’s equitable and inclusive, and improve the broader engineering culture to fully engage future generations.”
Liesl Folks, dean
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. – There was a time, no more than a few decades ago, when you could count on one hand the number of female engineering professors at the University at Buffalo.

No more – women permeate the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences faculty, including senior leadership positions such as the dean and department chairs.

While the engineering community at UB and nationwide continues to diversify, women and minority groups are still underrepresented in the field, which is why UB’s engineering school joined a push by the Obama administration to increase diversity and inclusiveness in the tech sector.

The White House recently held its first ever Demo Day, which included pledges from leading Silicon Valley firms and venture capitalists to hire and promote more women and minorities.

As part of that effort, engineering deans from more than 100 universities in North America signed a letter committing their schools to building more diverse and inclusive programs. Liesl Folks, PhD, dean of UB’s engineering school, was among a small group to jumpstart the initiative through the American Society for Engineering Education.

“While gains have been made in the participation of Hispanics, African Americans, women and other underrepresented groups in engineering, significant progress is still needed to reach all segments of our increasingly diverse society,” she said. “We must promote engineering education to those historically underrepresented, provide an experience that’s equitable and inclusive, and improve the broader engineering culture to fully engage future generations.”

The effort comes as the tech industry faces increasing scrutiny concerning the hiring of women and minorities. Yahoo said last month that African Americans comprise only 2 percent of its workforce. The percentage is even lower at Facebook.

Signees of the letter committed to:

·         Developing diversity plans, with input from the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers and other organizations.

·         Building at least one K-12 or community college pipeline to increase diversity of the student body.

·         Developing partnerships with non-PhD-granting engineering schools that serve groups underrepresented in engineering.

·         Increasing the number of women and underrepresented minorities working as faculty members.

UB’s engineering school and partner organizations have long worked to promote diversity and inclusiveness. Examples include:

·         Buffalo Engineering Awareness for Minorities (BEAM), an educational program founded in 1982 that prepares underrepresented middle and high school students for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.

·         Tech Savvy, a program launched in 2004 by UB alumnus and chemical engineer Tamara Brown, that works to introduce middle school girls to STEM fields in ways that are fun, exciting and relevant to their world.

Since Folks joined UB in 2013, the engineering school and partner organizations have launched several new initiatives to boost the involvement of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. They are:

·         Science is Elementary, a California-based nonprofit that UB is working with to bring scientists and engineers into Westminster Community Charter School in Buffalo each month to lead structured, hands-on science experiments.

·         The inaugural Women in STEM Summit, which was held in April and focused on encouraging women to enter the science and engineering workforce, and supporting those already on the path.

·         Sit With Me, an event in 2014 that celebrated and recognized the important role that women play in technology.

“I’ve seen firsthand the powerful impact that programs like BEAM, Tech Savvy and Science is Elementary have on underrepresented groups and minorities,” said Kevin Burke, PhD, teaching assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering. “As educators, we must not only continue these efforts but expand upon them to ensure there is equal exposure to all and ample opportunity to all those who seek it.”

With the development and implementation of the actions outlined in the letter, UB’s engineering school will do just that; furthering its commitment to diversity and inclusiveness. The benefits, according to Ann Bisantz, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, will be great.

"Engineers are the people with the knowledge and skills to solve societies most critical problems - like making people healthier, providing safe infrastructure, and supplying clean and renewable energy," she said. "We need people from all backgrounds to address these issues. Engineering careers are incredibly diverse and exciting, and the initiatives at UB are key to making everyone feel that they can contribute to the profession."

The engineering school will gauge the effectiveness of its actions over the next decade by measuring diversity in enrollments, retention and graduation rates of students, and increased diversity in the faculty and engineering workforce.

Cory Nealon
Director of News Content
Engineering, Computer Science
Tel: 716-645-4614
Twitter: @UBengineering