Tech in Ten: Diversity in STEM Education

Tech in Ten Cash Main
Tech in Ten Cash Main
Increasing diversity in STEM, particularly engineering, is a challenge that requires thoughtful and deliberate action.

Michigan Tech's thought leaders glimpse into the University's future. Alumna Robin Johnson Cash reflects on why STEM needs more people with new and different ideas.

When you think about the older generations, some believed that the moon was made of cheese and they communicated via “snail mail." In 2017, we are at the precipice of the next great evolution. We are heading into an even more technological world. The projection is moving quickly to an automated space, and I often wonder about the obsolescence of the current engineering learning model.

I have worked for the same automotive company for 30 years; I came out of undergraduate receiving a strikingly similar education as my doctoral advisor, Ed Lumsdaine, who graduated years before I was born, when slide rules were the order of the day. Ed experienced the transition from slide rules to calculators during his college education, while during my time, we transitioned from calculators to computers. NASA was using one of the first computers some 20 years before computing was introduced in mainstream engineering curriculums—which shows that it is infeasible for engineering to keep technological advances in step with the current learning model. Perfectly in sync is not the goal; improving the model is.

There is a demand for interdisciplinary shifts that not only blend the engineering majors, but integrate relevant disciplines. Michigan Tech has embarked on the first stage of such a curriculum shift with the multidisciplinary emphasis within the engineering school. Over the next decade, Michigan Tech could be a change agent by fostering a cooperative environment across areas of studies that embed innovation, systemic problem solving and a basis in the computing environment. The University is uniquely positioned to create and foster those innovative thoughts with the advent of a new curriculum, thus graduating innovators across all disciplines.

Diversity has to be part of innovation.

Most people now recognize the technological contributions of past African Americans. However, as I sit and think, I rarely—if ever—hear of current inventions created by African Americans. As an African-American woman, I can’t help but think that we as a nation are missing out on wonderful contributions from this community. The black culture has been widely adopted in mainstream use, from memes like “Bye Felicia” to Michael Jackson’s revolutionary “Thriller” music video. The innovation of the African-American community is there; however, it is not proportionally reflected in a technological sense. As Michigan Tech pushes to graduate more underrepresented minorities, we need to cultivate different perspectives on how to boost that proportion on and beyond campus. 

There is also a definite gap with respect to women in STEM. And even when we graduate, we are often undervalued and disrespected. Currently, we are dealing with sexual harassment and wage gaps in the workplace. Most recently, companies in Silicon Valley have been the subject of this discussion. There are many lawsuits over gender pay inequality and the mistreatment of women at work. Again, instead of leveraging the innovative insights of women, the aforementioned treatment leads to women searching for more inclusive work environments rather than the exclusivity of technical ones.

Michigan Tech can be a role model by attracting more women to join their faculty by creating and requiring diversity training for all students that encourage an inclusive and collaborative mindset. An inclusive mindset will lead to a genuine collaborative work environment that has positive impact on how we work together during the next ten years and beyond.

"I want people to take diversity training—and take it seriously."Robin Johnson Cash

As a certificated diversity trainer, an adjunct professor and a 30-year industry engineer (20 of which have been in leadership), I envision myself as a key contributor in creating a diversity and inclusion model that can set the benchmark for Michigan Tech and all institutes of higher education.

To create the future, our Michigan Tech community needs to start first with getting real. That means impactful diversity education and training. Until people realize that unconscious (or intentional) bias against minorities, women, younger professionals is not only a huge problem for individuals, but also blocks our collective innovation, then we cannot move forward.

We want to not only adapt to changes in the STEM landscape—we want to help shape them. To do so, we need to think outside of checking the boxes to increase underrepresented minorities. More brainpower and new perspectives can help engineer a more just and prosperous future for Michigan Tech.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.