There has been a lot of discussion in the media about Ahmed Mohamed, a boy in high school that was taken to jail by the police for showing a professor a clock he claimed to build.
Controversy has increased in social networks regarding if the boy actually designed the clock or not. However, I think debating over whether he made the clock or not is missing the point. For me, there are two things to discuss regarding what happened.
First, there is a clear act of racism in the way Ahmed was treated. His teacher shouldn’t make a big deal of what he brought to school, I don’t think other kids with different races would be in the same situation for doing something like that. Also, the Police didn’t treat the situation as if it were actually a bomb (a lot of articles about it online), even one of the policemen said they knew for sure it wasn’t a bomb, but they took him handcuffed anyway, showing that it wasn’t treated fairly.
Since this happened, Ahmed has received also a lot of support on the media and specially on twitter. He has received invitations from president Obama to visit the White House, from Mark Zuckerberg to visit Facebook, and also from different technical universities like MIT. Even our president invited him to come to Virginia Tech. I think is great all the support and coverage that Ahmed has received, however this brings my second argument.
The second problem that I have with Ahmed’s situation is not only the stereotype that they assume regarding the way he looks, but the assumed stereotype regarding the way he thinks. Because he was able to build (or assemble) a clock, everyone assumes that he needs to be in science or engineering. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying by any means that he shouldn’t be in engineering, instead, my problem is with the stereotype of the engineering profession.
One of the biggest problems that we have in engineering schools to attract and retain diverse populations of students has to do with the feeling that some highschool students from minorities have regarding what engineering is. They are taught that engineering is for people that excel in math, that played with legos and liked circuits since they were kids, and that had the desire to apply hard science to design stuff. This might be partially true, however, it’s not an indispensable requirement to be able to graduate from an engineering school. In fact, I believe that if we stop stereotyping the engineering profession and changing the way the discipline is perceived, more people will want to come to engineering schools, making engineering classrooms more diverse and as a consequence increasing innovation, teamwork, and leadership in future engineers for being able to understand different perspectives and provide solutions that consider everyone.
Back to Ahmed’s situation, wouldn’t it be great if he also were receiving support to visit liberal arts schools? The fact that he is building a clock doesn’t demonstrate that he can be critical thinker, creative, innovator, and able to solve problems. Isn’t that what is expected from students in most of the disciplines besides the technical knowledge of the discipline?
Ahmed can turn into a great engineer, but he can also turn into a great writer, musician, professor, or even a doctor.
I hope we stop stereotyping people for the way they look, but also for the way they think.