Changing Hearts: Equity in Engineering at the University of Michigan

As humans, we all have biases that prevent us from living up to our full potential.

These biases, impact our contributions in our careers and the world of work as well.

For example, the development of the first artificial heart was created predominately by a group of men. Why did this matter? The team worked tirelessly and enthusiastically to create a lifesaving new medical advancement and were ecstatic when they conquered a problem that previously seemed impossible-an artificial heart that could be transplanted into humans and keep that person alive.

A wonderful accomplishment to be lauded for sure-one problem, it only worked in about half of the population; it did not work in women as it was too big for most females! Since the team was dominated by men and the male body was their heuristic baseline, they did not even consider the anatomical differences as an issue.

There are other examples of solutions to real world problems that actually make the problem worse, such as Artificial Intelligence that actively discriminates against people of color in some instances.

The University of Michigan, with their dedication to diversity and equity, recognize this problem and are working diligently to change this. Thanks to a $1.2M grant from the National Science Foundation they are creating a curriculum to teach undergraduate engineering students to consider their questions and solutions with equity and inclusion as integral to their work just as important as accuracy and precision.

“We’re formalizing what it means to teach new engineers to practice in an equity-centered way, so that they understand the gaps that exist in society and can create engineering solutions that deliberately close those gaps rather than unintentionally expand them,” said Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering and principal investigator of the center.

University of Michigan News online

The new curriculum will include case studies that explore examples of how equity and diversity impact engineers both interpersonally but in their quest to use their skills for the betterment of humanity. An essential part of this will be support for professors via teaching circles that will help the faculty members to design course work and teaching methods that not only avoid biases but actively encourage inclusivity.

Any one who has been left out or marginalized in a work setting know how easy it is to have your voice neglected, criticized or rejected simply because you were not part of the dominant group structure leading not only to personal demoralization but a perpetuation of inequitable social problems that have detrimental outcomes for society.

Let’s hope that the University of Michigan once again leads the way and this commitment to equity and inclusion become the standard for university education, K12 education and for workplaces as well.

The seemingly intractable challenges facing humanity require all voices to be heard; ignoring their pleas will be catastrophic.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Why is the article called, “Changing Hearts?”
  2. What was the problem with the first artificial heart?
  3. What problem is the University of Michigan attempting to solve?
  4. What does the author mean by, “As humans, we all have biases that prevent us from living to our full potential?” Can you think of examples from your own life that either support or refute this statement?
  5. What is the author’s tone in this article?

Source Material: University of Michigan News

Photo Credit: Brenda Ahearn, University of Michigan News online

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