My bio blurb for tomorrow’s ASEE diversity panel is a shameless call for help on my dissertation.

It remains to be seen whether the panel chair will actually consent to read this one out loud… but I’m bad at doing the “formal bio” thing, because it’s boring. So.

Mel Chua wanted to be an art major in high school, but her parents said no, so she studied electrical and computer engineering at Olin College and became a professional hacker and technical community really-excited-person for several open-source software companies. Right now, she’s trying really hard to graduate from Purdue University. You can help! Mel is currently trying to finish her dissertation, which looks at how faculty interact and communicate during curriculum revisions. She would love to talk through her draft with anyone who’s interested, because she’s at that stage where she’s not sure what the “so what” is anymore.

Recipe cartoons from “Cooking Mondays with Mel” and our ESTEEM service dinner

This past semester, my friends Jess and Brian and I got together in the St. Tom’s kitchen for cooking lessons every Monday night. I cartooned some of the recipes we made — they’re designed to introduce basic cooking techniques that can be varied to create a whole bunch of cheap (yet healthy and nommy) grad student meals.

Cooking with Mel: Jess & Brian edition by Mel Chua

The recipe cartoons caught on, and I ended up drawing more of them for a service project this past May. A group of us from St. Tom’s helped the kids from the local urban ministry cook a St. Patrick’s Day dinner for their families. The last recipe comic features all the Purdue students who participated (yes, I actually polled people on their favorite fruits). Recipes from this sheet are from John Mohoric; I’m just the artist.

Dinner recipes from St. Tom’s ESTEEM 2014-2015 by Mel Chua

From Debbie Chachra: what I want to tell my future research students when they start

Debbie Chachra’s newsletter described what she told undergrad summer researchers in engineering education about their work today, and it struck me deep as someone who’s been an open source newbie and a perplexed undergrad researcher — and then grown into the sort of person that (terrifyingly!) is in the position to mentor both.

[Undergrad summer research] is not a job; the money they get is a stipend, not a salary. Its purpose is to carve out the space and time for them to participate in the program, not to pay them for the work they do… The reason why they get stipends and not salaries is twofold: one, because the summer is intended to be a learning experience above all, and two, because it’s basically impossible to do research to order. You can be directed to do specific research-related tasks, but actually exploring an area, being engaged, and coming up with insights is not something you can turn into a checklist, not least because if you could do that, it wouldn’t be research.

Research can pretty much only be done by people who are intrinsically motivated; that is, interested in and committed to what they’re doing, and not just doing it because they have to. Most of the students have had jobs and all of them are familiar with doing assignments for class; none of them have had an experience like this. So start by trying to get this across to the students: “You are not minions. You are not workers. You are not robots. You’re going to bring your whole heart and mind to what you do.”

This has been my failing — in both roles — many times. As a newcomer to open source and research, I showed up and expected… a job. That’s how you earned your stripes, right? That’s how you showed humility, and willingness to learn… you had to pay your dues. It’s what I had always been taught. And so I showed up in OLPC’s IRC channel and asked Jim Gettys to tell me what to do. I followed SJ Klein around the office like a puppy, beamed gratefully when Chris Ball gave me something to do. I sat in Cynthia Breazeal’s lab waiting for Cory Kidd to tell me… something. Waiting for orders.

It took a long time for me to realize that all these people were waiting for me. I didn’t know they wanted me — I thought they wanted my interchangeable labor-functionality. But no, they were waiting for an idea I didn’t know I was supposed to originate. How could I have known this was the culture, the expectation? I’d never been in a FOSS project before, never been in a lab — my family had never experienced these things. I’d never witnessed a student interacting with a hacker or a researcher. I had the “try things, make them happen!” paradigm, but only in my schools — I thought it was a thing you could do only in those special spaces like IMSA or Olin. I hadn’t been in schools like that quite long enough for that worldview to sink deeply enough into my marrow that it would transfer into all the spaces I would ever walk into.

Then I got a little older, a little more experienced. Failed a lot, learned from it — learned enough that others started seeing me as someone who could teach them. And I tried to impart this worldview shift of “you are not a robot,” but — as we often do when we are tired and under-resourced, I fell back into my habits. I would tell people what to do; I would scaffold a bit too tightly, I would… set expectations. When there’s no room to fail, there’s also no room to fly. I failed my way into becoming a better teacher, a better research supervisor, a better mentor of hackers, time and time again.

When we teachers think about the people who have taught us how to teach, we usually think about our own good teachers. I also think about the students who graciously allowed me to fail them, and stuck around long enough to keep loving me through learning how to be a better mentor to them. I am trying to make my learning worthy of the cost they had to pay for me to grow.

How and why to caption your engineering tutorial videos

My Purdue colleague Nicole Devlin started a YouTube channel called TL;DR engineering to explain first-year college engineering principles in concise but vivid ways. The videos are captioned! Here’s how she captioned them.

  1. Recorded high-quality audio.
  2. Used YouTube autocaptions (which are automatically generated).
  3. Then — and this is a crucial step, because the autocaptions were not accurate enough to learn from — she manually edited the captions for accuracy, using these instructions from Google.

…and that was it! The video is now more accessible to:

  1. International students and non-native English speakers
  2. Deaf and hard-of-hearing students and those with auditory processing disorders
  3. Students working in a library or other quiet place without headphones, or watching from their phones
  4. Students who want to scroll through the transcript to find a specific word or section
  5. Web search engines (making her videos more search-engine friendly)
  6. …and more.

If you want to go even further into caption ninjahood with very little effort, you can edit the caption breaks so they display sentence-by-sentence rather than 3-4 words at a time. This might seem trivial, but it means that you can read an entire thought at one time — which means you don’t need to hold the rest in memory. Imagine reading a book where each word was on a separate page. You’d turn the pages really, really fast (meaning you don’t get to see a word for very long), and you would have to hold each word in memory until the thought or sentence completed.

This is less complicated than it sounds. For instance, the current transcript of one video has…

Choppy text
1:00 Laminar flow is the opposite of turbulent flow,
1:03 it’s very smooth and regular like when honey flows…
1:07 every molecule has its place. If we look at the Reynolds number for honey,
1:11 the viscosity is very high and
1:15 velocity is very low, which leads to a low
1:18 Reynolds number and laminar flow.

With very little editing, this can become…

Smooth text
1:00 Laminar flow is the opposite of turbulent flow.
1:03 It’s very smooth and regular, like when honey flows. Eery molecule has its place.
1:08 If we look at the Reynolds number for honey, the viscosity is very high and velocity is very low,
1:15 which leads to a low Reynolds number and laminar flow.

And that’s it, folks. Caption your videos! It’s a small one-time job for you, and a long-term higher impact for everyone. Thanks to Nicole for being a great example and captioning hers!

Protocol draft: codesigning classes with my (future) students

As often as possible, I’d like to codesign my classes with the students who take them. Here’s my best shot at a written procedure, based on things I’ve done haphazardly in the past. I’ve never written it down and tried to deliberately improve the process, so this post is less a “done and tested, known to work” process and more a “first draft benchmark to improve from” one.

This post was inspired by recent emails on the POD mailing list by Leli Pedro and Tim Spannaus, Designing Significant Learning Experiences by Fink, Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe, and Karl Smith and Ruth Streveler’s excellent class “Content, Assessment, and Pedagogy” with some memory help from Todd Fernandez.

Step 0: Prep the class to expect the process. This isn’t normal procedure, so I can’t expect students to walk in knowing what to do. I’m the type of person who thinks on my feet, but need to be sensitive to the fact that some students need advance prep time in order to think effectively. Some might want to ask classmates who’ve taken the class before, some might want to email/chat with me beforehand, and some might not do any prep at all… and these are all perfectly fine options.

I would send them a heads-up on the process we’ll be using (possibly linking to this blog post), and send brainstorm-seeding material beforehand: sample syllabi, textbook tables of contents, feedback from course alumni, etc. I’d also have this material available during the first class.

Step 1: Brainstorm learning objectives/outcomes as a class. These will come in several different shapes and sizes — lists of topics, Bloom’s Taxonomy objectives (in all 3 domains), small skills they’d like to pick up, larger concepts they should be generally familiar with, enduring understandings (“what do you want to take away 3-5 years from now?”). I don’t yet have a coherent taxonomy of learning goals that I would like to use — which is a known bug in my “codesign my class!” protocol that I would like to tackle with… whoever wants to tackle it with me. (Maybe even my first class.)

This in-class brainstorm will probably start with quiet solo writing, then gradually move into bigger (and louder) group discussion. Sticky notes will probably be involved. The variety of brainstorm formats is important. Quiet people should be able to contribute, reflective people need time to think, and I want to give people as many chances and formats and mediums as possible to have a voice, since not everyone’s voice is equally comfortable in every space.

Step 2:  Converge on learning outcomes via some collaborative process. There’ll probably be discussion via some sort of participation architecture (not “who can interrupt fastest and loudest?” because that would make my interpreter sad). If we can’t converge via discussion, we might use excellence voting to help the process along.

As the instructor, I reserve the final say on vetoing/adding things to this list, but I would expect that this power would be used rarely, if ever at all.

Step 3: Repeat steps #1 and #2 for assessments. How do you want to be graded? Who do you want to get feedback from? At this point, it’s important for us to distinguish between formative feedback (during the learning process) from summative feedback (after a particular semi-arbitrary phase in the learning process, such as the submission of a deliverable — since the learning process itself never truly ends). It’s also important to recognize that the people giving you feedback don’t need to be the same people giving you grades.

I will probably come in with some ideas for this, but I’d like to let the class bring in their own thoughts and modify mine, so we can all come up with better ideas together. Again, I get final say, but should rarely have to use it if the process is truly collaborative.

Step 4: Repeat steps #1 and #2 for pedagogy — in other words, activities to facilitate their learning process, where “facilitate” means “make you better able to successfully complete the assessments we agreed upon.” Similarly to step #3, I’ll probably come in with some ideas, but everything is open to discussion (with me having the final say).

Step 5: Reflect on the process. We will likely have taken more than one class period to do this. We may even need more than one class period for this step alone. That is perfectly okay with me.

In order to help design a class, you have to learn your way into the world the class is trying to teach you. Through the process of codesigning the class, we’ve mapped a specific trail through a territory that the students now have a broad sense of. Students who entered with no prior experience are now equipped with a big-picture view they’ve made themselves. Students who want to know the exact sequence of course events have now helped to design them. Students who didn’t know why they should care about the topic have been able to put things that they are excited about hooking the learning into.

And I have the satisfaction of knowing that…

  1. I don’t need to sweat about designing everything perfectly for unknown constraints ahead of time. (Or making sure my syllabus document is perfectly formatted ahead of time… which I use as an excuse to procrastinate far more than I’d like to admit.)
  2. The individual needs, preferences, and constraints of each student and instructor will be designed into the class by default, so it’s not about doing “special things” to make sure that the deaf professor (me) can understand, or the religious TA doesn’t have to work around a major holiday, or the student going to a conference doesn’t have to drag a massive tome of reading with her, or so forth. It’s not extra work to change a prebaked class; we’d weave that into the way things are right from the start.
  3. I will get very few questions and arguments about the syllabus, grading, points… this may sound trivial, but if you’ve ever had students clamor for higher grades– it’s not.
  4. I’ll never teach the same class twice, so I’ll never be bored.
  5. My students start the term knowing that I’m not an Almighty Deity to be placated, and they’re not “open head, insert information” buckets to be filled, but rather they are junior partners in exploring whatever topic we’re about to delve deeper into, and I’m just someone who has… improvised here longer.
  6. I get to do design thinking with my students in every class I ever teach, even if my class “isn’t a design class.” Awesome.

Ite, inflammate omnia: on Pentecost, impossible lipreading, and the wine at Cana

One of those “dang, these fragments have been crying out to be patched into a writing-thing for a long time” blog posts. I don’t know how much sense it’ll make to anyone else, but I’ll at least get it out there so that my fingers can stop itching and my mind can clear.

Pentecost is one of my favorite stories.

You might know it: a small group of stunned and grieving friends huddled inside a room. A flaming wind descending upon them, sending them forth to teach — and an international crowd stunned to find themselves able to understand. “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?” (Acts 2:7)

To me, this a story and a celebration of communion — and of community, and of communication, intertwined. These are the things I thirst for, and can never get enough of — communion is my heaven, isolation is my hell. There are three stories that join into the way I understand the flames of Pentecost: Babel, the summer lake, and Cana.

The first is the story of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), the story of the scattering and splitting of humanity due to their pride. I don’t know if the tower is historically accurate, and I don’t care — I’ve felt the splinter-shards of that shattering in my own life, because I stretch between dozens of worlds that don’t talk to each other easily: Asian/American, arts/technology, deaf/hearing, femininity/male-dominated-fields, the span of generations in my family, the gap of distance that is part and parcel of a heritage of immigration, and many others.

Humanity splits itself apart in millions and millions of ways, stretching and snarling. It’s part of how the world is broken. It’s part of our job to help repair it. Pentecost reverses Babel, restoring our ability to understand the mystery of others. The connection of those two stories is nothing new or unique; they’re read together every year at Mass.

The second story is from last summer, and probably won’t make much sense to anyone who wasn’t there. I was with church friends at the end of a long day, exhausted and unable to communicate. Too much lipreading for too long will burn the brightest brain out, and mine was fried. We were by a lake, in a large circle, chatting. Or rather, my friends were chatting. Ironically, they were chatting about the Holy Spirit — the same Spirit that descended at Pentecost, bridging and understanding — and the way that Spirit had recently acted in their lives. And all the while, I was struggling in my tiny hell of isolation, straining to catch the communications that were being flung across the space, failing again. And again. And again.

Until I wasn’t. Something shifted, and the understanding became effortless. I couldn’t hear the words any better than before, but they made sense. They slipped into my brain, instantly — and I could localize the speaker with pinpoint accuracy (an ability that wearing hearing aids is supposed to destroy, and usually does) — and I could recognize their voices individually, and I could understand them. I could understand them, I couldn’t hear them any better, but I could understand –

With a start, I realized that night had fallen. I couldn’t see who was next to me, let alone lipread them. This made no sense at all; exhausted deaf person loses the ability to see and gains effortless conversational comprehension? Everything was backwards! I began to laugh, and then I tried something I’d always wished for — I flopped backwards in the grass and watched the stars. And the effortlessness continued! I’ve never been able to look at something else while listening — my eyes and neck are always riveted to track the speaker’s lips, my concentration straining — and now I could watch stars, or stretch — or even close my eyes! — and still remain connected to the conversation, sweet and easy.

The spirit of Pentecost, the spirit of communion and of understanding, had descended upon me as well. I relished this for a long moment with a sense of growing awe.

Eventually, I piped up and somehow semi-coherently explained to my friends what was happening. Then I began to shake and weep into the grass in gratitude. We were all stunned. But we were also (mostly) science majors, so of course we tested out this strange ability with small experiments to check what I could do — and yep, I could understand them with my eyes closed, point to them, couldn’t hear any more sounds than I usually could (I was definitely still profoundly deaf). Some of them jumped into the lake, swam out — I could still hear them, pinpoint their location, understand them without strain.

The next morning, I woke up, and it was gone. But I’ve carried that tiny taste of heaven with me since — what it’s like, what it could be like, to touch that understanding and connection that goes deeper than our words. To have my gnawing hunger for connection lifted, for a moment, in one way.

The third story is Cana (John 2:1-11). The version in the Scriptures is short and sparse; Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding party when the couple (ok, mostly the groom) doesn’t even realize they’re about to run out. I didn’t think much of this story until my first Ignatian retreat, when I abruptly found myself caught in the middle of it, watching a scene unfold within my mind’s eye for over two weeks every time I sat down to pray.

The wedding I saw was not the sort of wedding that my family historically has had — two people from within the same community, already known and intertwined in the same social fabric long before their birth. My grandpa’s sister married my grandma’s brother. My two grandmothers were childhood playmates; years later, my mom’s mom recognized my teenage dad by family resemblance the first time he showed up at their house to see my mom. My parents’ older (and younger) siblings and the siblings of their friends were school classmates, and a collective set of older sisters set my mom up as the prom date for my dad’s friend since kindergarten. That friend later married my mom’s 7th sister. Another of my dad’s friends since kindergarten threw the college parties where my parents started dating, and later married my mom’s 8th sister… I could go on, but yes, this is normal. Filipino-Chinese society is small and deeply intertwined. (I’ve had relatives who married outside it, more recently — and that was weird.)

But the version of Cana I saw (in my prayer — your mileage may vary)  was a patchwork of people who’d never met, and who you’d never expect to find all in one place. Apparently, the bride and groom were from — and/or had been — all over, so the people they had met along the way were a bizarre collection of “how in the world are you even in the same room?” People who’d journeyed from far-flung places, disparate social circles, mutually unintelligible languages, with clothes and foods and customs strange to one another. The groom’s schoolmates from one place, the bride’s cousins from another, the many circles of friends, family, and colleagues — wild diversity, something that should be shattered, fragmented, unable to connect –

And yet — instead, they danced their way into a mosaic. Connecting. Pointing, laughing, learning new words foreign on their tongues. Finding ways to patch themselves together. Sometimes with translation help from a few bilinguals, but often without words — children playing variants on universal games (tag!), cooks helping to prep and sample one another’s unfamiliar dishes (nom!), laughing, stretching, miming, scribbling, drawing — dancing, hugging, listening with bright, attentive eyes. Reaching out to share and thread together a great tapestry of stories from all over time and space and viewpoint — a polyphony of lives joined together by narratives that started with “so, how do you know the couple?”

This seemed to have nothing to do with anything, and I was terribly confused, and spent quite a few prayer periods going “uh, God, I… explanation, please?” Eventually, I grasped the point — or at least one of them, as best as I could. It wasn’t that this was a wedding — it could have been something else without a bride and groom. A classroom, a town hall, a cafeteria, a conference table. Ordinary human places, convened by ordinary human people.

The point was that this tapestry and this communion was knit around — and threaded through by — ordinary human people, doing ordinary human things. (Which also happen to be miracles. For instance, being born — a miracle we’ve each experienced.) And I looked upon the scene at Cana, and heard — or rather, felt — somebody tell me: hey, look! That’s your job, Small Human Mel. You’re made to weave impossible communities together.

That’s why, for me, Cana is also Pentecost.

At the end of the Pentecost story, some people make fun of the disciples. They see these ordinary people teaching a crowd they should not have been able to communicate with, and they snicker: “They have had too much wine.” (Acts 2:13)

Yep yep. They are. They’re absolutely sloshed on wedding wine — transfigured wine from Cana and the marriage supper of the Lamb. Inebriated with the spirit that has come to dwell and make a home within them (John 14:23), they embody the love that draws all people to itself (John 12:32). In other words — in software words — they merge and patch the world. Filled with fire, they patch the stories of the world together, bring people to listen to each other, teach them how to build communion and hold it together — both at the loud and joyful party full of fellowship, and within the privacy of a quiet tent. (“The second is way easier for lipreading,” my brain chimes automatically. I laugh and shake my head at deaf-environmental-scanning-habits.)

And this is why I love Pentecost. It’s communion. It’s my heaven. It’s my job. (Also, it’s fire. I like fire. Fire is shiny and fun.)

Ite, inflammate omnia.

If I were to teach 1cr/cocurriculars at Olin, what would they be?

Emily Wang recently asked me if I’d ever considered teaching a 1-credit evening course at Olin (which alumni can do, now — it’s a great idea to get multiple Olin generations interacting). Here’s the resultant brainstorm. Note that these are things I’d like to teach, not things I will teach, because of the finite amount of bandwidth humans have…

  1. A Brief Survey of Engineering Education History and Philosophy (springboarding off the Purdue graduate class for inspiration, but with some major tweaks)
  2. Radical Tansparency (applying open source philosophy to both software and non-software settings)
  3. Somatic awareness and bodywork (I will probably do this informally in the dining hall or somewhere else on a semi-regular basis anyway, because MY shoulders need it)
  4. Using Engineering Analogies to Explore Learning and Pedagogical Theories (something I’ve wanted to do again since 2007, when MetaOlin delved into it; we were the first student-run course/StuCourse at Olin)
  5. Awkward Dialogues: Techniques and Practice (the topics we’d practice on would probably be stuff like feminism, spirituality/religion, leadership/politics, sexuality, etc — the content would be “here are techniques and participation architectures that make it possible to dive deep into things without snapping into habits we may not want in the room”)
  6. A Sign Language Subset for the Olin Campus (I’d need to have a co-instructor who was actually fluent in ASL for this, but basically — I believe there’s a fairly small subset of phrases, words, etc. that would make lots of sense to add to the Olin gestural language — we already have a few Olin-specific gesture practices that we teach first-years when they come, like the thumbs-up during discussions.)

Being deaf is: unlearning “paper face” (proceed until NAK vs. wait for ACK)

Edited on May 17 to expand and clarify a few thoughts.

One of the first things a mainstreaming deaf kid learns is how to hide how much they’re missing. Facial expressions can give you away. If I looked confused every time I missed something someone said, I would look perpetually confused. And frustrated, and sometimes angry and heartbroken, left-out, lonely, helpless. Not the most fun emotions to have running across your face and body all the time. Not the greatest emotions to let others see, either — they overreact in entirely non-helpful ways.

Solution: don’t show (eventually, don’t even feel) those emotions. I ended up with a semi-permanent “paper face” in school — a blank sheet, carefully screened, regardless of the content or how much of it I was missing. (Curiosity and excitement were allowed through — hungry for knowledge, I smiled a lot when I got it.) If it was important, let’s just hope I could figure it out later somehow.

One side effect of “paper face” is that, to hearing people, I look like I understand a lot more than I do. The hearing world operates under the communication assumption that “if they’re not complaining about it, then they understand it.” You’re assumed to have accurately received a message by default. If you say something, and I want you to think I’ve understood you, I do… nothing.

And since we so often mistake understanding for competence and intelligence, rather than considering how lack of access can so easily mask the two — I do… nothing — so hearing people will (accurately) assume I’m competent and intelligent. In order to perform my identity as “intelligent” to the hearing, I fake understanding, ironically denying my intellect the data it thrives on. Run faster with a weighted vest, and don’t complain.

The Deaf world works differently. Instead of the hearing protocol of blithely proceeding until you get a NAK, the Deaf protocol is to constantly monitor for ACKs. The default is to assume people did not get the message unless they specifically indicate otherwise. Eye contact. Nodding. The linguistic equivalents of “Mm-hmm” and “uh huh, yeah, yeah, gotcha.” Constant mutual monitoring and affirming of connection. To Deaf people, my facial blankness makes it look like I understand a lot less than I do.

So far, in terms of cultural adjustment, this has been the biggest gut-punch. I don’t know if I want to adopt this aspect into what it means for me — Mel — to “be deaf.” I don’t know if I want to visibly show people, in realtime, when I do and don’t understand. I know that most of the time, I don’t understand — and I know that hurts. It hurts to realize it, and it hurts to show it.

So: do I work at showing that? Do I blip packets of “understanding status” back towards my interpreters, and risk them being intercepted and translated (and mistranslated) by the hearing folks around me? Do I let all that frustration seep into my face, my body, my thoughts and feelings — is that something I want to admit into my way of being? Will that take away from my ability to think? Communicate? Or will it strengthen and empower it, ground it in presence and reality?

This is not a matter of how much grit I have, or how much hurt I can tolerate. This is also about very real tradeoffs regarding what impact I want my effort and my suffering to have. My suffering will exist regardless, in a world not made for people like me. My choice is how to use my rare ability to pass for hearing — how to voice my experiences to hearing people as a deaf person who plays their game and speaks their language better than most of them do.

Do I clip a huge part of my heart and soul out in order to stay inside the dialogue — because even half of my voice is half a voice that wouldn’t be inside the dialogue otherwise? Or do I speak from all of who I am, and risk being kicked out of it? Risk ruining my ability to be accepted as “one of them,” risk being dismissable as one of “those disability activists,” just like we dismiss “those feminists” as an excuse to stop trying to understand them? Every time I use my voice, I risk diminishing its power. Or perhaps it’s not a risk; perhaps in some ways, that’s always the tradeoff, as if I had a finite store of voice-power to use in changing the world. That, too, is lack of privilege.

On the one hand, this is small. Eye contact, nodding. What’s the big deal? On the other hand, the personal becomes political becomes philosophical, without my desire or intent to do so. Because for me, that eye contact means “Help me. We have created a world in which I am insufficient. Will you come back to get me, and others like me, so we can all fix it together?”

Members of the Olin community respond to NYT “How To Attract Female Engineers” article

A collaboratively written letter to the editor of the New York Times article (April 27, 2015) “How To Attract Female Engineers,” which inspired my previous blog post on the subject.

To Professor Nilsson we say: “Yes, and.”

Increasing the percentage of women in engineering will better the field, expanding the kinds of work engineers do. We are professors, students, staff, and alumni from an engineering school enrolling 50% women, many in traditional fields of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering. Here students, across the curriculum, do technical engineering work embedded in social context, from designing equipment for small-scale farmers to building prosthetic fingers for a grandmother who wants to play LEGO with grandchildren.

We absolutely need more of this in engineering. But let’s not accidentally create “caring enclaves” for women, where this work may be perceived as less technical (and thus easier) than traditional engineering work. We often hear that traditional engineering (i.e., male-dominated, ultra-technical, not-people-oriented) is technically more difficult. This assertion is untrue and damaging: it can lead to the expectation that the rest of engineering is fine as is. Siloing women in “caring” forms of engineering may perpetuate the very gender-based stereotypes and hierarchies that many of us work to eradicate as we battle everyday sexism in the field.

The authors of this letter are all affiliated with Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts (faculty, staff, students, alumni).

Debbie Chachra
Ingrid Hagen-Keith
Caitrin Lynch
Alisha Sarang-Sieminski
Lynn Andrea Stein
Lauren Taaffe
Yevgeniya V. Zastavker
Rehana Patel
Sara Hendren
Anne LoVerso
Mitchell Cieminski
Gabrielle Waldman-Fried
Ellen Chisa
Diana Vermilya
Carmella McCormack
Kari Bender
Kate Maschan
Eric Munsing
Boris Taratutin
Rebecca J. Christianson
Elizabeth Kneen
Kate Dramstad
Mikell Taylor
Carisa Rubi Leal
Jessica Townsend
Emily Wang
Kristina Cary
Sarah Waskom
Joanne Pratt
Meagan Vaughan
Melissa Yu
Rachel Mathew
Chen Santillan Wang
Pearl Donohoo-Vallett
Maruta Vitols
Jennifer Simonovich
Natalie Mattison
Julianna Stockton
Alison Shin
Ananya Kejriwal
Erika Swartz
Jessie Lin
Suzy Hong
Rachel Nancollas
Jessica Anderson
Mariah Dunn
Tiana Veldwisch
Victoria Hsiao
Preeta Willemann
Jessica Noglows
Jackie Rose
Morgan Boes
Meryl Stark
Kristen Dorsey
Mel Chua
Heena Mutha
Emily Tisei Moscol
Ash Walker
Angela Sharer
Casey Landey
Kimly Do
Bukky Adebayo
Leah Mendelson
Kendall Pletcher
Gracie Sanford
Rachel Bobbins
Jessi Murray
Sara Wheeland
Jessica Donahoe
Rebecca Schutzengel
Kristina Raposa
Sharon Breitbart
Linda Canavan
Molly Farison
Charleen Laughlin
Lawrence Neeley
Rob Martello
Jordyn Burger
Andrea Lai
Herbert Chang
Ilana Walder-Biesanz
Alyssa Levitz
Jeffrey Atkinson
Sarah Walters
Siddhartan Govindasamy
Sebastian Dziallas
Becky Belisle
Allison Bahme
Chris Carrick
Matt Wootton
David Adamec
Harold Jaffe
Stanislaw Antol
Allen Koh
Joan Liu
Erika Boeing
Ariana Chae
Jennifer Wei
Ambika Goel
Bill Warner
Cody Wheeland
Dave Rowley
Sarah Leavitt

(If you’re an Olin community member and want to support this post, feel free to add your name and Olin affiliation in a comment below.)

On the diversity-readiness of STEM environments: “It’s almost as if I could only enter the makerspace as a janitor.”

My thoughts from an online discussion with other female Olin engineers on this NYT article on “how to attract female enginers,”, edited for context. In particular, we brought up the (well-worn) claim that women don’t want to “just focus on the tech stuff” and want to “do sociotechnical/humanitarian work that makes a difference in the world.”

I’ve built my career as a “technical community person” who “thinks beyond the technology,” and as a teacher and researcher of learning environments — so this may come as a surprise to people who know and have worked with me. But if my teenage self had had her way, I would have VASTLY preferred to “just focus on the tech stuff.”

As a kid, I wanted to choose the privilege of being oblivious and keeping my head down and immersing myself into the beauty — the sheer beauty! — and joy of STEM for STEM’s sake. I didn’t become an ECE to work on educational computers or hearing aids or anything like that. As my friend (and former roommate) Kristen Dorsey said, “I just geek out about nerdy stuff, OK?”

But I couldn’t “just geek out about nerdy stuff.” The environments where I was trying to “learn about nerdy stuff” were sociotechnically broken in a way that made it hard for me (as a disabled minority woman, among other things) to join in. If I wanted to even start being part of the technical community, I had to start by fixing the technical community — patching the roof and fixing the plumbing, so to speak — before I could even walk inside and start to live there. And when I patched the leaking roof, I patched the roof for everyone, and other people who needed non-leaky roofs to be in the community could now… be in the community as well!

For instance, I got really, really good at facilitating meetings because it was the only way I had to make meetings accessible to me — when other people facilitated meetings, they’d often forget I need to lipread, so… I just quietly started leading them myself, and ended up making meetings work better for everyone. And I found that when I drifted towards “humanitarian” projects, the people there were much more conscious of sociotechnical things and more likely to have already-healthy environments, so I would have less leaky roofs to patch, and less resistance when I tried to patch the roofs — and people actually recognized and valued roof-patching labor instead of looking down on me for not writing code full-time.

After a while of patching roofs and unclogging toilets and plastering the rotten drywall, I got a reputation in industry for being really, really good at open-source software/hardware (technical) community facilitation. It’s almost as if I could only enter the makerspace as a janitor. And part of me resented that, but never said so. But, I told myself, at least I was in the building. And I saw that my “janitorial” work made it possible for other people to enter the building and do the things they wanted to do — which were often the things I wanted to do, too! — and so I thought: okay. That’s okay. At least somebody gets to do it. I can see my gift to the community doing so much good, that I will give up my desire to learn and do the technical things — so I let my own STEM learning slide. I am good at “community work,” and I did come to genuinely love it, over time.

But if I had the choice, I would have never gone into “community work.” I would have chosen — if I had the choice — to focus on “shiny tech stuff” that… didn’t save the world at all. If my teenage self had had her way, I would not do community-facilitation-anything, I would not be thoughtful about women or minorities or disabilities or any underprivileged group in engineering… I would be oblivious to all my privilege. I’d be a kernel hacker, or an embedded geek, or something “hardcore technical,” Because I could be.

But I didn’t have the wherewithal (or the desire) to shovel all the stuff out of the way that I would have to do in order to do that. If you think of “caring/environmental labor” as a sort of tax some people have to pay in order to get to “learning/doing technical things,” my tax rate has always just been too frickin’ high.

So I have been “the full-time community person who is ridiculously good at tech stuff that she no longer gets to do,” instead of “the technical person who understands and listens to and cares about inclusion and community.” Because I cannot not patch a leaky roof. But I have always wondered what I might have grown up into, if I had learned STEM in an environment that was ready for me — without me having to fix it first.