May 2017: The Teaching of Inclusive Engineering - Paper given at the IET/EPC Conference 'New Approaches to Engineering Higher Education', 22 May 2017
The engineering profession has come a long way since the industrial days when engineering meant making something that worked, and seeing if you could improve it to a point where it also made money. Nowadays engineering also includes the additional considerations requiring engineers to ensure that their products are safe, ethical, sustainable, free from cyber vulnerability, and – more recently - inclusive. Inclusive engineering is a relatively new discipline which requires engineers to have a competence which ensures that not only are teams made up of a diverse range of members, who bring with them the diversity of thought that we need – which evidence has shown leads to more profitable, more productive and more innovative business, but also to ensure that the engineering solutions that they produce are equally inclusive of all considerations and viewpoints. A growing body of evidence points to ways in which getting inclusivity right has produced solutions that are better and more acceptable to the customer, and lead to a safer and healthier working environment.
The discipline of inclusivity, however, is one which – like all other competences – has to be taught, and has to be practiced, and teaching our next generation of engineer the value of diversity and inclusion at undergraduate level is a way of ensuring that our future engineers have the competences we require. This teaching of inclusivity should form part of a wider programme of introducing a Diversity and Inclusion Programme to an Engineering Department.
To ensure that the competence of inclusivity is taught at degree level in engineering we must embed it into the requirements of UK SPEC, the specifications against which our engineers are taught and measured. And once embedded, we need to ensure that we train our accreditors in the requirements and the methods of seeking evidence to prove inclusivity.
Embedding inclusivity into engineering degree courses should be done in two ways. Firstly, ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ awareness modules for students, where the competences and behaviours are taught specifically and separately to the engineering content, and can be included throughout the course as discrete seminars, tutorials or workshops.
Secondly, inclusivity can be integrated into the content of the engineering curriculum, by way of example and case study. There are many opportunities to do this, and these can be expanded as students bring additional examples of their own. In both cases here the competence becomes learned and becomes part of the engineering mindset, instead of being an extra that gets forgotten as soon as the ‘nudge’ goes away.
The novelty of this approach, introducing inclusivity to students by means of relating it to the actual engineering they are studying, is that it becomes much more relevant, more intuitive, and more relatable to the students. They begin to understand that there are important safety, product and service design, productivity and financial sustainability improvements that can be made as a result of inclusive behaviours. They will be motivated to find ways of developing this competence, knowing that they are becoming better engineers delivering higher performance, and producing better solutions.
The following topics could form part of a taught module, and these would be built upon and tailored appropriately as the students near the end of their course, and progress towards employment.
Wider Programme of Diversity and Inclusion
A number of other activities introduced within an Engineering Department will ensure that the teaching of inclusivity is not done in isolation, and that a broader level of diversity and a culture of inclusion exists.
Academic staff must also be aware of how inclusive teaching practices lead to a better departmental culture and improved outcomes for students (and teaching staff) from under-represented groups. This work will involve the engagement of students from under-represented groups before they even apply to the university, through visits and outreach activities, and ensuring that they are supported once at university. This work may also involve an examination of the entry level requirements, and the need to change teaching schedules in order to accommodate these students with different levels of skill. The following areas should feature in a strategic plan to improve diversity and inclusion in an engineering faculty:
So in summary, to improve diversity and inclusion in engineering in a more integrated and sustained way it is necessary to introduce the teaching of inclusivity at undergraduate level, and to link it to the engineering curriculum itself, in conjunction with UK SPEC. For maximum benefit, this work should complement simultaneous cross departmental activity designed to produce a culture change within the department.