Friday, March 11, 2011

Inherent Power Relations of Engineering's "Boot Camp" Mentality

I wanted to start off by noting that the abstract for Feminisms in Engineering Education: Transformative Possibilities threw me for a little loop; I was a little confused at the beginning. The abstract states outright that “The goal of this paper is to examine the possibilities for EXPLICITY feminine work in engineering and engineering education” (21, my emphasis), while going on to state that “thus feminist visions of engineering might address a BROAD set of concerns such as militarism, racism, and global economic inequality as well as sexism and heterosexism” (ibid, my emphasis). At first, this confused me, but as I read through the article I figured that a feminist LENS was being applied with a nod to intersectionality, i.e. looking at how different societal factors come together, as opposed to isolating one specific factor. Hence, this is why the word “explicitly” threw me off.

However, I wanted to focus specifically on the third feminist framework explored in this article, “Learning from Antiracist and Liberatory Feminist Approaches”. It is mentioned that post-colonial scholars in particular shape this framework, by introducing the discourse of power relations, and how power is used to oppress. An example of how this discussion is applied in the classroom is by making it part of the course content, in connection with the science material. This is a wonderful example of lending both contextuality and interdisciplinarity to course content. However, while thinking of power relations, I thought to connect this to a very important insight that Hess brings up in Conclusions: Science, Technology & Multicultural Education.

He identifies that engineering schools tend to have a “boot camp” mentality, and that this culture is masculinist in nature for the STEM curriculum (252). This harsh, unforgiving environment, I argue, is directly associated with the phenomenon of the engineering pipeline. I can apply it personally: sophomore year, first real aerospace engineering class, AERO 215: “this class is based on MATLAB, go ahead and buy it, and play around with it for about 30 hours for next week, because you’ll do your homework with it.” Nevermind that the course was only 2 units and we would be spending 20+ hours per week working outside of class, and that the MATLAB course offered by the Computer Science Department, CSC 111, was only recommended and not a perquisite for AERO 215, and on top of that, that there was no lab section offered to help the students learn the program through exercises. Oh, and also that it was taught by a grad student, in a department that has a small student size and adequate number of professors.

This might sounds like a rant, but this is the exact quarter when I decided that I was dropping AERO as a major. The worst part of it is that complaining gets you nowhere, as the older students and even professors might tell you, this is just the way it is, and if you want in, you’ll have to hurt. So the power that is being exerted here does not only have to do with course content, but more so with underlying expectations. These expectations, moreover, serve to weed out students, which I feel is an unspoken agenda of the College of Engineering, in my opinion. But which students are weeded out? I was one of them: a female, Chicana student. And I saw many other such instances of minority students being weeded out. And when they are “weeded out”, having been defeated by this “boot camp” mentality, they are required to STAY OUT. At least at CalPoly, you are told that you cannot be readmitted to the College of Engineering once you are kicked out.

The huge problem with this is that students are being kicked out not because they do not have the intelligence to learn, but that the expectations of the curriculum are often too hard to satisfy. And those students who come from white, economically-sound backgrounds usually have more resources to help them stay afloat, while minority students are drowning. And this makes for a showcase of “look, they can’t make it” thereby reinforcing stereotypes of underachievement and failure. There needs to be an “overhaul”, as Hess points out, of this mentality that reinforces the traditional, masculinist hierarchy of power, as feminists would point out, that just asks too much of any student.

Works Cited

Hess, David. "Conclusions: Science, Technology, and Multicultural Education." Science and Technology in a Multicultural World. New York: Columbia Univeristy, 1995. 250-59.

Riley, Donna, Alice L. Pawley, Jessica Tucker, and George D. Catalano. "Feminisms in Engineering Education: Transformative Possibilities." NWSA Journal Summer 21.2 (2009): 21-40.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Who's the real genius?

Progress, innovation, sustainability, hard work. Staples of pride for Americans. The progress of technology is essentialized, idealized, placed on a pedestal of praise. Advertisements are great representations of what the people are interested in. What we want, they sell; and how we want it, well, that’s how they present it. Maybe you’ve seen this commercial: . The obvious selling point is progress, and the ad celebrates its inevitability. We enjoy the idea of progress and love to show it off, as if having the newest technology demonstrates our ability to progress, and we embrace that. There’s nothing wrong with embracing progress, or arguably even showcasing it. Take pride in our achievements because they truly are phenomenal. Just look how far we’ve come! Not even Benjamin Franklin could’ve envisioned the ipad and that dude came up with some really innovative creations. Even in the last fifteen, ten, FIVE years, the progression our technology has achieved is remarkable. Let us remark upon it. Let us bask in our certain demonstration of human achievement. And we all know there’s some crazy stuff going on in GE, Google, Audi, Apple, and countless other centers of innovation that we may or may not have heard of (yet). We rightfully applaud these creators. Our politicians are dedicating a huge portion of our educational budget to these types of innovations. We do big things, and we are going to Race To The Top of the world’s technological strata once again. It’s a technological arms race and we’re dedicated to demonstrate our abilities. All it takes is for us to work hard, and study hard in school and we’ll be a nation of innovation!
What if we celebrated progress as a society? No, not givin’ it up for MLK on that day off from work in Mid-January. No, not dedicating an entire 1/12 of all the months of the year to black history. No, not showing the pity of that nice white family in Memphis that made Michael Oher’s dreams come true. No, none of these superficial ways of making everyone feel better about not being as oppressive as we used to be. What if we celebrated progress as a society in the same way we celebrated technological progress? What if we thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. like we did Albert Einstein? (But Einstein’s b-day doesn’t get us a day off… But who do we reference when we call someone a genius?) I can’t and don’t wish to argue against Einstein’s brilliance. He was truly a hero for the progress of science. But what if we considered the two as at least equal? What if we treated Dr. King as a superior thinker? After all, Einstein had to have his own door painted red so he could know which house was his. MLK knew where his home was, America. MLK led a revolution that has made his home better for MILLIONS of people. And not just for black people, not just minorities, but all of us who have lived since the civil rights era. Our world, our homes, the lives of our American and human brothers and sisters, are all vastly better of because of Martin Luther King’s brilliance. His articulate speech, his philosophical prominence, his dedication, his hard work, his leadership, and his innovation combined to make one hell of a man. And what progress he made and initiated! What if we thought of him in such a way, the way that he truly was. The way that his everlasting influence will put the United States back On Top of the world for its progress in equality, freedom and standards of life for all. 3-D tv’s don’t mean much if you can’t afford cable. Things don’t bring us the same happiness that love and liberty do. If they did, I would have no use for anyone besides the ones making all my stuff. And shoot, in twenty years we’ll have the technology that we don’t even need them at all! In that same twenty years, what if we have a land where all people are created and treated equal?
Our constitution doesn’t base its principles on laptops, robots and the pursuit of the next new thing. Our founding fathers didn’t start a revolution so we could have the best technology. So why are we praising the wrong things? I have nothing against scientists and engineers. I have a bunch of friends that are engineers. (Irony intended, but it is indeed true.) I love my computer, my car, the keyboard on my phone and the lights above my head. But what about those things that give us love, hope, knowledge, freedom and justice? What about teachers, preachers, activists and revolutionaries, even at the small scale? Why don’t we recognize the difficulties of teaching? Why don’t we say, “that Jimmy’s a smart boy, he’s probably going to grow up to be a teacher!”? Why don’t we recognize? Why is our focus shifted in such a way? Why do we operate in these paradigms? I would love to know.
Hess’ “Conclusions: Science, Technology and Multicultural Education” presented us with an interesting statistic form the 1990’s that “in the year 2000, only fifteen percent of new additions to the American labor force will be native-born white males.” The rest will be made up of immigrants, people of color and women. Or so it wrongfully speculated. The statistic was widely used, according to Hess, and similar ideals are falsely promoted in boardrooms across America. “ ‘Our country is a United Nations of people from all over the world: men, women, foreigners, blacks, whites, Hispanics. We all get along because we treat each other as individuals.’ “ These folks can talk, but all the statistics seem to prove otherwise. Reality proves otherwise. We are only taking false, superficial steps towards true equality. Mr. I Love Black People doesn’t really think affirmative action is a good idea, though, it’s making it unfairly more difficult for white kids to get in. What about the standards of acceptance, sir? What about SAT prep and AP classes being available in white, upperclass schools far more readily and frequently? Is that unfair? What about setting up an educational system that praises the removal of the music building to make way for a laboratory? Does that unfairly make school more difficult for creative, artistic students? Affirmative action isn’t new and it isn’t gone. It’s been here for a while and running rampant, we just talk about it differently. We just advantage a different group with it.
Sue Roesser has developed a way for women to achieve success and find enjoyment in engineering (Loftus, 2003, Prism Magazine). She innovated. Why aren’t schools like this popping up everywhere? Why isn’t she as appreciated as much as she should be?
What does it say about us as people, as a people, that we are more interested in the progress of things than of our fellow humans?

Reading Response #3

The PBS overview was rather extensive and provided an equal amount of information from both perspectives about this controversial issue. I thought it was beneficial how the article was separated into different sections to better describe the separate issues.

It is important for someone, like me, who knows little about the damming situation in India to read about its extensive history. To understand the importance of dams and the extraordinary engineering that has taken place in hopes of improving the consistent drought issues that are relevant all over the country. However, this article expresses not only are dams built for ecological concerns but in the Indian mind, the people see the “holy rivers [as] vital to India’s existence.” The rivers and water are considered scared due to the scarcity throughout the land.

While reading the history section of dam building in India I thought it was interesting to see that dams have been built for centuries, and still always face the same issues of displacing both people and land. However, these issues are continuously ignored and the dams almost always proceed over the needs of the people. For a problem that has been relevant for so many years it is surprising to see that no laws or provisions have been installed to decrease these damages. In addition to not installing laws to protect the local people from loosing their land, in “1995 Indian Environment Ministry report revealed that 87 percent of India’s river valley projects did not meet requires safeguards.” This proves that ministry officials were more than aware of the “various environmental regulations” that had been violated for the last 15 years. Yet, they still found a way to continue the projects even with problems like soil erosion and neglect of human health only to name a few.

The history section highlights the main issues of a power struggle that Arundhati Roy discusses in her interview. This interview introduces the contrasting voice to the history of the dams, expressing the voice and concerns of the people. Roy states the continuous situation is a “story of the powerful against the powerless and the whole world.” Even though the “dams are the temples of secular India and worshipped” by the people, their “faith has been shaken” due to its consequences. Roy presents alternative and more sustainable ways to collect local water that have been discovered in different parts of India, yet the government has refused to create funds for these types of projects. I believe that the lack of funds is a result of the alternative ways not being able to collect as much water as the dams. However, if they can prevent displacing 30,000 people and catastrophic environmental concerns, wouldn’t the alternative plans be worthwhile? This article demonstrates and example of how technology is a privilege but it without restrictions it can create more harmful situations than before.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Feminisms in Engineering Education: Transformative Possibliites

Reading Response #3

I really enjoyed reading this piece, and I feel Riley and authors had many well developed points that I feel are crucial to being a socially conscious and careful engineer.

The discussion of the idea that "the problem of women's underrepresentation in engineering indicates deeper more fundamental problems about the nature of the profession and engineering education" (p. 3) poses a really great perspective that has not been brought up yet: the fact that it is deeper underlying issues within the profession and education that causes underrepresentation, instead of the issue itself being women are simply "not interested" in the subject which over simplifies the issue. Riley goes on to say that when the underrepresentation of women is defined narrowly as a problem in itself, equally narrow solutions, ones that don't adequately address the issue, are created (p.3) and argues that we must take a deeper look at the structure of the profession instead of asking repetitive questions such as "where are the women?" and "why so few?" (p. 3).

Another aspect that intrigued me was the discussion of intersectionality and how it is important to address these issues within the engineering profession and education rather than simply looking at race and gender individually (p. 4). Although I agree with the authors because only identifying and analyzing one form of oppression when trying to solve an issue is counterproductive and often times perpetuates these forms of oppression onto one another, I feel it would be very difficult to address the idea of multiple forms of oppression and intersectionality within the engineering workplace and it may backfire. This is because the idea and concept of intersectionality is one that we all deal with, but it is not something that is easily defined, identifiable and understood to the point where it could be adequately addressed in a setting where this is not a focus. This idea of intersectionality is extremely complex not only because it confronts different forms of oppression (gender, class, race, sexuality, etc.) but because it confronts hierarchies that exist within individual companies, the profession itself, and education and may conflict with the values that those companies have. Because of these issues, it may be hard for a company who has many clients and deadlines to effectively address deeply rooted factors causing inequalities, unless, like the authors say, implemented within education, but carefully and with just as much emphasis as engineering curriculum.

Finally, the issues of the definitions of progress for different communities was addressed as well. The author's gave the example that most of the work the work women do is simply ignored, for example, low-tech but high-impact solutions (such as inexpensive water filtration systems for 3rd world countries) are dismissed and not considered acceptable engineering (p. 7). The authors go on to explain that educators focus on high-tech engineering in "first-world" rather than focusing on solving problems experienced by women and people in poverty (p. 7). This puts into perspective the reappearing questions of "What is good engineering?" and "What is progress?" Offering the idea that progress may mean different things for different communities, and the same is with the idea of good engineering.

To start, the authors offer that thought must come from "the lives of marginalized peoples to create and reflect knowledge that is authentic in the context of these peoples... communities themselves serve as agents of knowledge and an ethic of care requires understanding of a communities' norms about what counts as evidence, which can only be provided by a community itself" (p..8). The authors pose a very crucial standard for socially conscious engineering, that only the community knows what they need and how it should be provided, therefore, extensive efforts should be made to outreach and connect with the community in which engineers will work in to effectively accommodate those communities and ensure the most needed and effective solutions.

I feel this is an important piece to read for all engineers in order to begin to be socially aware of how their work affects the broader public, but as well for ethnic studies scholars to begin to bridge the disconnect of social science and the sciences and engineering.

Engineering for the Sake of Engineering

Why do we build? Why do we engineer projects that alter the beauty and brilliance of nature? Nature, that which has provided the bosom from which humanity has suckled for eons. We do it in the name of progress. But what is progress? Does progress mean increasing the ease in which humanity lives their lives? This definition may hold true in many cases, but not in all. Where the Pyramids at Giza progress? Was the Great Wall of China progress? Was the White Sea Canal progress? At what point do the price paid in human lives and the cost to the environment keep progress from being defined as such? At which point do historians stop to describing these large engineering feats as progress and start defining them as disasters?

Some of the most impressive engineering feats in the world were constructed at great cost to human life and caused irreparable environmental damage. We can think of classically famous events such as the invention of the atomic bomb, Chernobyl, or the draining of the Aerial Sea. Even in the safety conscience world of today, projects such as mineral mining and constructing of roadways have dramatic impacts on human life and migratory patterns of animals. In 2002, China alone had 7,000 deaths from coal mining. I'm showing you this number to showcase the fact that even things we take for granted, such as coal, has very profound effects. While 7,000 deaths is not small number, it pales in comparison to the death toll recorded in some of the engineering projects of the Soviets.

The most striking example of a project that took little regard for human life and environmental impacts in its definition of progress was the White Sea Canal. Built with the intent of allowing sea faring vessels from the White Sea to travel directly to the Baltic Sea, the result was a canal frozen 6 months out of the year that was too shallow for large ships. The project was ordered because it was impressive in size and scope, not because it would save money or make the lives of the people easier. During construction of this monumental engineering project an average of 10,000 people died every month, for a grand total of 200,000 dead workers. No natural disaster in recorded history has had a death toll so high. Was this project considered progress by the families of those people who died?

When does engineering happen for the sake of engineering and not for the sake of progress? It happens when decision makers apply technocratic methods to situations in which local context must be considered. For some, engineering progress personified by machine-line efficiency; this was the case with the Soviet Union. For others it is about craft and design; such as in Great Britain. While both of these are on appropriate ends of the spectrum, what must always be taken into account is the impact of engineering; on both nature and humanity. Progress in engineering is not always bigger and more complex solutions, sometimes the simple answer in a local context is better for everyone.

1. China Reports Fewer Coal Mine Deaths in 2009. Daily News & Analysis. Retrieved from
2. Graham, Loren. (1993). Ghost of the Executed Engineer.

Reading Reaction #3: How Much is Too Much?

Without any doubt, technology has proved to, literally, save lives. However, what society tends to ignore and not publicly share are the negative impacts a lot of new technologies are causing. In many cases, the invention of new technologies literally costs human lives. As Richard Sclove explained in his article, “Making Technology Democratic,” a huge battle society faces with technological advancements is that it is eliminating social interaction and, therefore, local autonomy. PBS introduces a specific scenario on the banks of the holy Narmada river that will submerge the entire self sustaining farming community that has lived there for centuries. With this, questions that need to be addressed are whether or not a price for human life is even achievable and if social skills are lacking due to social networking. True joy comes from friendships and relationships, but email, Facebook, twitter etc are all gradually taking precedence over meeting a friend for a coffee at the local coffee shop, for example, or in a case like the banks of the Narmada River, friendships are extremely strong due to the fact that the people of the village work together to literally survive (growing food, building shelter). However, proponents of these social networks argue that the sites enable people to keep in touch with many more people, but this raises another question; are the majority of people that communicate via the internet true friends or creating true friendships? If not, can you put a price on true friendship?

Proponents of the dam project will argue that, although an estimated 300,000 people will have to choose whether or not they want to flee or drown, it “will provide electricity, irrigation, flood control, and drinking water to an estimated 40 million” (PBS). “ ‘The Dammed’ raises important questions about the costs and consequences of modernization and development, as the global community re-evaluates the social and environmental impacts of large dam projects” (PBS (2003). The Damned overview).

Richard Sclove lends good advice for the kind of technology society should aim for. He explains the importance of having “relative local economic self-reliance.” And suggests “avoid(ing) technologies that promote dependency and loss of local autonomy” (Sclove 92). If technology could be better monitored, future generations would be in much better hands. Today, the technology craze and excitement over new discoveries has caused people to not even consider the negative impacts the new inventions could or are already having. The level technology has reached today is immeasurable, therefore, if it was monitored it is safe to claim that the effects of technology would almost always be positive. Unfortunately, with the technology race out of control today, the negative impacts on the environment and actual human interaction is installing future problems that society will need new technologies to fix; the beginning of a viscous cycle.

If new technologies are invented around the idea of “avoiding dependency,” the effects of new technology would naturally be effecting his or her community directly and, therefore, push he or she responsible for inventing the new technology to seriously think about what the effects would be, both positive and negative, before actually creating it.

Works Cited

Sclove, Richard. Resisting the Virtual Life;Making Technology Democratic pgs 85-101. San Francisco: City Lights, 1995.

Wide Angle; PBS. The Damned. 18 September. 2003. 8 March 2011.

Reading Reaction #3: Thinking Into the Future

It is always great to think about improving what is here and now but it is also extremely beneficial to be thinking about what is going to happen later on in the future as well. In the National Academy of Engineering (2004), the authors use the knowledge of what is known now about engineering and what engineering is currently constructed as to creating a goal to reshape engineering as they best see fit. Their major goals to succeed by 2020 include: valuing and understanding engineering education more, make engineers more historical and socially aware of the world’s challenges, push engineers towards leadership opportunities, and increase the diversity in recruitment and retention. From and Ethnic Studies viewpoint, I believe that they do cover two fundamentals of improving engineering education which is: in diversity and to become a “global engineer”. They state that it is important to “ethically assist the world in creating a balance in the standards of living for developing and developed countries alike” (National Academy of Engineering (2004), p. 51). I find this important because we need to focus on the good for all people rather than just looking out for ourselves. Plus, it is important to increase diversity, whether it be race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. With diverse engineers can come great ideas and innovation and potentially create different viewpoints in looking at certain aspects of engineering.

But after reading Hess’s piece, I am conflicted in believing whether all of this is possible. He points out that there is institutionalized racism and discrimination for women and people of color with the glass ceiling. He also discusses the importance of providing a more diverse staff to “provide diverse role models for the students” (Hess 252). Beyond that I also wonder if it would be better to hire younger professors who have had experiences with a slightly more diverse group of engineers or diverse undergraduate program rather than retain older professors who most likely only had most, if not all, White males in their undergraduate program. From interviewing a woman of color in engineering, I have learned this to be true. She stated that the younger professors were more engaged with students and more willing to help rather the older professors who tend to maintain a distance to her (this may not be true for all professors but for some). I think this may help create a more comfortable atmosphere by having a new generation of staff coming in who may have new goals in mind.

I believe that the goal of diversifying engineering is a great goal, but I really doubt that it will become diverse in 2020. I believe we are still far away in creating equality and equal opportunities, like in recruitment. We see this in Cal Poly where most of the students are from good high schools and from higher income homes, which do provide more opportunities and courses (such as AP courses) to excel. I do not know when this goal will actually be achieve, but I do have hope that we are progressing by focusing more on this problem and trying to do something about it.

Works Cited:

National Academy of Engineering (2004), “Chapter 3: Aspirations for the Engineer of 2020” (pp. 47-52) (in The Engineer of 2020: Visions of Engineering in the New Century).

Hess (1995), “Conclusions: Science, Technology & Multicultural Education”.