Shifting perspective, increasing diversity

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Sriram Sundararajan, professor of mechanical engineering, talks about improving diversity in STEM fields.

It’s no secret – there is a need to engage underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

We need diversity of thought and different ways of thinking as we work on solving important, multifaceted problems. When know that adding more ideas as we begin exploring these sorts of problems means everyone is not going to see eye-to-eye, and that’s a good thing.

The talent and perspective that different genders, ethnicities and abilities bring to a conversation results in engaging dialogue and robust solutions.

We know diversity is beneficial, so why does it take time to be more inclusive?

One of the biggest factors is that we’re talking about shifting cultural perspective, and some unconscious bias may be impacting our thought processes. We have to address what creates these biases to be able to improve and enhance diversity in STEM.

So how do we get there? It’s not a direct path. We have to push past the images media portrays and societal traditions that, while they may seem outdated, are still prevalent.

In the College of Engineering and across the university and state of Iowa, there are several programs in place to address this very issue.

I work with the Iowa NSF EPSCoR broader impacts group, and we have created trainings to recognize one’s unconscious biases that may adversely influence one’s interactions with individuals from underrepresented groups and provide ways to address these biases and be more inclusive.

We also look for ways to increase engagement of students from these groups in science and engineering fields. This can be through research experiences while they are students at the Regents’ Universities or through outreach programs for young students in primary and secondary school. These opportunities are often offered in conjunction with other great programs already in place such as immersive summer experiences for teachers and students as well as Project Lead The Way. This allows us to extend their reach and making a bigger impact across the state.

Because we’re talking about changing culture, we have to be patient, but we also have to be persistent. We’re going to keep seeing the benefits of diversity, and that will only help us to continue moving forward.

About the author

Sriram Sundararajan is the broader impacts platform leader for the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research for Iowa (Iowa NSF EPSCoR), a project aimed at building Iowa’s research capacity in renewable energy and energy utilization. In his role with Iowa NSF EPSCoR, Sundararajan coordinates the activities of diversity, faculty development, outreach, and engagement as well as workforce development for the program. He is also the College of Engineering’s equity advisor, professor-in-charge of Engineering-LAS Online Learning, and a professor and associate chair for operations of mechanical engineering.

Sundararajan recently talked with Ben Kieffer on the IPR program River to River about how learning improves when teachers recognize diversity in the classroom and treat it as a positive asset. Hear what he had to say during the interview: