I’m a Biomedical Engineering major with a minor in Community Action and Social Change from the School of Social Work. The combination of my major and minor often creates perplexed faces on whoever is asking the question. The responses are typically along the lines of “engineering and social work — that doesn’t make sense.”
This is the constant ideological and pedagogical struggle that has dominated my undergraduate educational experience. At the end of my undergraduate career, I feel it’s important to emphasize the underlying connection between these two apparently polar opposite academic pursuits. The unifying concept inextricably linking science, engineering, technology and mathematics to social science, arts, humanities and social justice is the principle of understanding the world around us to make life better for humanity as whole.
At first it may be a challenge to see the relationship between this principle and STEM fields. However, a closer examination elucidates the connection. I believe that Albert Einstein said it best with, “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree. All these aspirations are directed toward ennobling man’s life, lifting it from the sphere of mere physical existence and leading the individual towards freedom.”
In my opinion, STEM is more than equations, mathematical models and data; I prefer the view that these are techniques to understand the world. This understanding of the world can eventually lead to developments that can change our society as a whole. I believe STEM fields can realign themselves with a holistic understanding of the world by engaging STEM students in meaningful reflection and education around the people and communities that their work will ultimately impact.
In my experience, cultural and social competence is a low priority in most STEM education programs. Now, I’m speaking on my own experience within the College of Engineering, however, there are applications and implications to the STEM community at large. In the College of Engineering in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, there has been, at times, a complete disregard shown for those whom our work is inherently supposed to benefit. Peers and professors have made comments that forsake the integrity of patients for the pursuit of ideal data. There are complaints that blame the poor and “Obamacare” for taking away funding from their niche research directed at helping the wealthy, and there’s a constant stream of micro aggressions against anyone who isn’t a rich, white, heterosexual, “American” man of ideal body size. The social acceptance of complaining about the intelligence of GSIs based solely on their accent is just one example of the lack of cultural competency in the engineering community.
Being able to effectively work with people who are different from you is a skill that’s essential to success in the modern world. It’s important to not only examine your own experience in the interaction but those of the person or community you’re working with. An impressive final product doesn’t mean a team was able to effectively work together. Teammates could be dismissing the ideas of others based upon preconceived notions. The product could be successful, but the potential of the product is reduced by the exclusion of teammates and their ideas. It’s important to teach cultural competency skills, such as balancing power dynamics, respecting and acknowledging differences and creating opportunities for many diverse voices to be heard.
A 2005 article in the Research Journal for Engineering Education by Chubin, May and Babco explains, “Given the relatively homogeneous composition of the engineering faculty, and the profession’s workforce more generally, it behooves engineering education to assist current and future practitioners in becoming culturally competent.”
Social and cultural competency should not be an afterthought. It should not be something that’s assumed to be trivial and not worth the time. Cultural competency isn’t a distraction from scientific work, but rather a realignment with its original intention. As the “Leaders and Best,” it’s our responsibility to provide our students with all the skills they need to be successful in their future careers.
The College of Engineering and all undergraduate STEM programs at the University should implement cultural competency into their curriculums. This should not be thought of as a burden brought about by a liberal agenda, but instead as a means of equipping our future world-leading scientists, engineers, professors, mathematicians and members of the community with a complete set of skills to make our world a better place to call hoMe.
Jake Heller is an Engineering senior.