Final blog post: Semester Retrospective

I was fortunate enough to be part of this class. I always wanted to take a course on diversity and inclusion. Most of the people try and avoid conversations around these topics. There was some introduction about these topics in some of my previous courses like contemporary pedagogy and future professorate. Looking back, I think I made the right decision to choose this course as my elective for future professorate certificate. The course has made me understand the different aspects of diversity, inclusion and, equity. I think personally, I enjoyed discussions and personal experiences in class regarding topics like implicit bias, microaggressions, stereotype threats, and intersectionality.

Dr. Grimes and the other guest lecturers really facilitated the discussions well. I remember when we were talking about critical topics like race and privileges, I thought to myself that this might not go well. But to my surprise, everyone was so tuned by that time in the class that everyone respected each other’s theories and views. That was one class when I was fully attentive and thoroughly moved by every story that was shared. I will never forget the discussion about the historical monuments in UVa and VT. I was surprised to know how little did I know about the history of Virginia Tech. I had never researched about Smithfield plantations before.

I also really liked the concept of learning about higher education in other countries. Although, I have been part of such exercises before in other classes. But, this was more in-depth and also centered on diversity and inclusion. Being from India, I was hoping that I would get a chance to talk about India. However, Sam and I were given to talk on Chinese higher education. Looking back, I think I learned more after researching about China. Also, I have never facilitated a workshop before. So, this also hopefully will be an enriching experience. This is my last chance to put everything on the table – whatever I have learned in the last 4 months.

This class has definitely increased my horizon. I have started understanding the importance of the fact that everybody is unique and brings something new for learning. A diverse environment is a must for better ideas and success. As discussed in the class, it is not only about diversity but also equity and inclusion. It is important to make sure that whatever we do, it is diverse and inclusive. This class will help me a lot since I am going to teach a full course next semester. Diversity and Inclusion course has made me understand the importance of being an unbiased teacher who creates an equal, diverse and inclusive environment for the students to thrive and learn. I hope I am able to do that with my learnings and experiences during the teaching course.  At last, I will try and be vocal about diversity and inclusion as much as possible after this course. There is a definite need for people to learn more about these topics. I hope this will happen in the future.

Higher drop out rates in Engineering

Engineering fields are very popular among new college students. Many of them enroll in STEM programs across the world but do not graduate. They either drop out or change majors. While doing my research on this topic, some of the reasons for drop out listed in student surveys are (references 1,2 and 3) –

  1. Lack of self-confidence
  2. Too much work
  3. No longer believe in succeeding in engineering
  4. Engineering major not matching the interest
  5. Poor science/engineering knowledge in high schools
  6. Poor background and debt in student loans (do not have enough money to finish 4-year education)
  7. Higher drop out rate in Latin and black students as compared to white peers.

Researchers at Iowa State University did a thorough literature review of the 50 different studies focusing on low retention rates for engineering majors (reference 3). The researchers talk about the reasons behind students transferring to other majors from engineering. One cannot stop someone from leaving if they are not interested but partly is due to the failure of educators in making fresh college students believe that engineering, scientific and mathematical principles are within the reach of their abilities. I totally believe in that conclusion. I know of many friends who left engineering because they lost interest due to the bad professor teaching in the early days of college. Let us also talk about the amount of loss in terms of money for the individual who drops out without graduation. According to the study, assuming a 30-year working life, leaving engineering might cost an individual student on the order of one half-million-dollar over the course of their career. This also means millions of dollars of tuition fee loss to the college per year.

Now let’s talk about some ways to increase the retention rates. There are some of the curricular level, co-curricular level and extra-curricular level. Providing a better classroom and research atmosphere can definitely increase retention rates.  Some of the curricular avenues that can help include first-year seminars focusing on real-life engineering problems. Guest lectures from renowned engineers can definitely motivate new students. Group projects and lab projects can help students relate to the practical side of engineering. Social projects in the field of civil engineering like building bridges in remote locations with the help of local people can also help.

Co-curricular activities like engineering internships, summer exchange programs, and student-faculty interactions also boost the morale of the students. They not only increase engineering knowledge but also helps grow your networking circle. For example, I decided to continue structural engineering after my first internship. It was then when I realized that civil engineering is fun and the things we do have a direct impact on people. At last, extra-curricular activities like participation in student organizations and cultural clubs also relives some heat off. I am a civil engineer but was always fascinated by robots and mechanical engineering. That desire made me join the robotics club during my undergrad. An engineer in my eye is someone who has basic knowledge of all types of engineering. And with time and experience, one does acquire that. All you have to do is stick around if you are interested.

References

  1. https://www.collegetransitions.com/blog/so-you-want-to-be-an-engineer/
  2. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/02/26/latinx-black-college-students-leave-stem-majors-more-white-students
  3. Why They Leave: Understanding Student Attrition from
    Engineering Majors – https://www.rise.hs.iastate.edu/projects/CBiRC/IJEE-WhyTheyLeave.pdf

 

Blog Post 3 – The impact of intersectionality in schools

What is Intersectionality?

I have taken a couple of courses before where we had discussed many issues about diversity and inclusion but I was not aware of this term before. The term was coined by black scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. The concept is based on the fact that the overlapping nature of different identities like race, color, class or gender can lead to more disadvantages or discrimination for an individual as compared to individual identities. The coin was termed thinking about the discrimination faced by Black women and how it was different as compared to the plight faced by only black men or only white women. This video also explains the term with different examples.

Impact on schools and the steps ahead

According to some surveys and findings (1), students of color located in poor localities are more likely to get incomplete and poor coursework. Similarly, as per a study, only two percent of White girls were subjected to exclusionary suspensions compared to 12 percent of Black girls (2). Students of color who identify as LGBTQ face more victimization as compared to white students. There are so many facts in favor of the negative impact of intersectionality on school students. The question is how can we stop it? How can a teacher be taught to not be biased? Intersectionality issues cannot be looked at from 2 different angles. For example, Ms Crenshaw mentions that Harvard came up with 2 different committees (one for women and one for black) to increase the admission rate of black women. This is the wrong way of looking at things. There needs to be a better enactment of policies regarding intersectionality in schools. If there are biased policies, they need to be changed or replaced and educators need to realize this.

For Christina Torres, who teaches seventh- and ninth-grade English at the University Laboratory School in Honolulu, Hawai’i, knows that students talk about race, gender and other identity layers outside of class and feel that it is her responsibility to let them bring up these topics in class. (3) Torres says. “A woman who is Latina in L.A. is going to have a very different experience from someone who’s in the middle of Arkansas. The place matters, too.” It is really important for all teachers to think like Torres. I believe this not only makes the students understand their multiple identities but also empowers them to believe that everybody is different and this infact needs to be respected.

References

  1. http://www.swiftschools.org/talk/understanding-intersectionality-critical-advancing-educational-equity-all
  2. http://www.atlanticphilanthropies.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/BlackGirlsMatter_Report.pdf
  3. https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/summer-2016/teaching-at-the-intersections

 

Diversity in Structural Engineering

Statistics on gender and racial diversity show that women and minority representation are low in structural civil engineering (reference 1 and 2). These stats include representation in engineering firms, state licensure boards, professional organizations, and universities. The percentage of women in structural engineering in universities is the highest among all the four areas (~25%). This number drops to 15% for the firms, licensure boards, and organizations. Similarly, minority groups account for 10% (Hispanic), 3% (African American) and <1% (Native American) in the universities. Women tend to acquire lesser positions of leadership in structural engineering firms and universities. Minority males do face some disparity in pay range but it is still better than women. It was also found that women leave jobs in between due to lack of work satisfaction and lack of flexible work schedules.

I personally think part of the problem is the biased behavior of males towards females during interviews, presentations, promotions, and teamwork. I know of so many instances where people have mentioned that women are not good at engineering. I believe, attitude is a big problem here. And it gets intensified by social and cultural bias/stereotypes. I think there should be more awareness programs. By no means does being a woman or being from a minority group make one less competent, smart or intelligent. Proper development and mentoring from early-career can lead to many great women and minority leaders in the coming time. I personally have not seen many women HODs in civil engineering. This is sad but the truth. Nowadays, civil faculty in the leading U.S. universities do have a good balance in terms of race and gender. But we have a long way to go. More steps need to be taken in this direction. A diverse workplace makes the job more competitive, innovative, productive and definitely adds to the experience.

References

 

  1. Diversity in Structural Engineering Profession – https://www.structuremag.org/?p=7042
  2. Gender and Racial Diversity in the Structural Engineering Profession – https://static1.squarespace.com/static/55cba7dbe4b07ca3d73c39af/t/55ce4e24e4b06c2348a5dab6/1439583780768/GenderDiversityDraft_FINAL_Rev_v1.pdf

 

Blog post 2 – Stereotype threat

What is Stereotype Threat?

Stereotype threats are situations where an individual feels the risk of following any conventional notions (especially negative) about one’s identity group (race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, cultural group etc.). Some of the prevalent experiments and studies show that black people performed worse than white people in standardized tests when they were reminded of their skin color before the test. They performed equally good when the race was not a factor. Similarly, women perform badly in advanced calculus when there is an environment of stereotype created before the exam. [3,4]. Experiments in the past have shown that black faculty experience cases of implicit bias [1]. They have faced stereotypes at every level – academic (poor quality of data) to personal (tight clothings for interviews and presentations) [1]. There are many examples. In totality, stereotypes affect the performance of an individual and also negate aspirations. You can see the video in the references if you like for more knowledge.

How has Stereotype Threat affected my life?

I come from India and people in India have stereotypes about everything. One of the biggest I have seen is that women are good in medical and men perform well in Engineering. So, growing up I always saw more men in engineering colleges and more women in medical colleges. I feel it is something in the mind. I also kind of feel it is a perfect example of implicit bias. How can someone think that a particular gender is good at something? Another example is that people in India think that women are not good at driving. They drive rash and are responsible for accidents. Let us talk about religion now. I am Sikh by religion. Not a lot of people know about Sikhism. I grow a beard and keep my hair. One thing I am often asked almost every time is “Are you a Muslim?”. It is kind of funny to me that people have that notion if you are brown skin and keep a beard, you must be Muslim. I have also seen people telling me that you must be good at math since you are from India. And there are many more. These stereotypes inhibit the growth of an individual. They create a seed of uncertainty in the mind of an individual. At times, you start judging yourself. But, I have made my peace with all these stereotypes. The important thing is to avoid them. Everybody knowingly or unknowingly has biases or stereotypes but the important thing is to recognize them and work towards getting better.

Future steps

I feel stereotypes are there to stay. The situation can be made better. As I said, it should first be tackled at a personal level. At an academic level, diversity training which includes diversity statements, workshops and classes at the college level helps in reducing bias and promotes inclusivity [2]. Discussing topics like biases and the value of diversity puts a better perspective on the issues with the stereotypes prevalent. This class and other 2 classes (Future Professoriate and Contemporary Pedagogy) have changed my way of thinking a little bit. I would encourage my friends and peers to take these three courses. Especially as we were discussing in class, this course should be made compulsory. As graduate students, we never think of diversity, inclusion, biases, stereotypes, etc. but I have realized over time that these are important and need to be addressed.

References (Canvas)

  1. Presenting While Black – Colleen Flaherty
  2. Stereotype Threat in School and at Work: Putting Science Into Practice –Toni Schmader and William M. Hall

References (Additional)

  1. https://www.edglossary.org/stereotype-threat/
  2. https://www.ncwit.org/resources/talk-faculty-colleagues-about-stereotype-threat/talk-faculty-colleagues-about-stereotype
  3. Video – How to avoid gender stereotypes: Eleanor Tabi Haller-Jordan at TEDxZurichhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZFNsJ0-aco

 

 

Intro Post for GRAD5214

Hello! My name is Japsimran Singh. My friends prefer to call me Jap since it is easier to say and also not a tongue twister. I go by he/his/him pronouns. I am a third-year Ph.D. in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. My program area is Structural Engineering and Materials. I work as a graduate research assistant in a large structural engineering testing laboratory here at Virginia Tech. My Ph.D. project is based on the loosening of anchor nuts on highway ancillary structures (traffic signals, luminaires, etc.) (see picture below). In the past few decades, some of these structures have fallen down onto the Interstates during high-speed wind events. The project revolves around finding the different causes of this loosening and suggesting remedial measures to prevent this loosening of nuts. I was also the president of a graduate student organization (Structural Engineering Institute at Virginia Tech) for 2 years.

I am originally from India and came to the U.S. for my masters in 2015.  I love cooking, playing racquet sports, hanging out with friends and family, visiting new places. I love trying out new food items. I am a big FOODIE. I also love playing badminton. My father introduced me to the sport and I have been playing for the last 15 years. One interesting fact about me is that I have changed 8 schools as part of my schooling. My father was in the army and he would get posted every year or so. It definitely made me meet a lot of new people from different backgrounds and cultures back in India. I am taking this course because I hope to understand and learn about the issues of diversity and inclusion. Everybody is biased in some way and I am excited to know my biases and work on them. I hope to learn from other people in the class and grow as a human being.

 

 

Social Diversity, Implicit Bias and Inclusive Pedagogy

I come from India which is home to people from different religions, cultures, race, ethnicity etc. There are around 1600 languages in India. It is hard to find another person with a similar set of thoughts, looks, language etc. in India. Even with so much of social diversity, there are instances of bias based on diversity everywhere all the time. I want to cite a few I have seen or heard in India since my childhood. It is common for men to do engineering in India and for women to become a doctor. One does not expect women to do civil engineering for example. One does not expect women to reach higher levels in a corporate job. Men in India feel women are meant to be housewives. This is obviously changing but is still prevalent.

One will think there won’t be any racial bias in India since we are all Brown. Well, you are wrong. It is very common for parents to find a relatively fair girl for their son for marriage. People in India mostly think that someone with relatively darker skin is not well off and not educated. Now, since we are talking about bias, it’s not limited to India. I think it has nothing to do with the country or place. It is prevalent everywhere around the world all the time. It has to do with the wiring in the Brain I think. Shankar beautifully describes the human mind having 2 modes – conscious (pilot) and unconscious (autopilot). The unconscious mind very quickly thinks of something and makes a judgment. It does not process the thought. For example – One does not see many women in an engineering college in India. So, the human mind thinks maybe women can’t do good in engineering.

Let us think of this in a classroom setting. Let us suppose you are an instructor and see two raised hands in the class. Instinctively, your mind chooses one of them. One does not think of it as bias at that time but it is biased in a way. If you allow a man before a woman or a white person over a black person, you are being biased. You also find biases when you are asked to make a group for a group project in a class. Most of the people look for known people or people with similar background. Why? Why does one do that? Because it is bound to happen. Because there is no perfect society. Until there is inequality across all the spheres in life, the bias will stay. Question is how to tackle it? How to counter them?

There are many strategies (Strategies). First of all, avoid assuming and judging on the basis of partial or no knowledge. It is better to know a new person or understand a new situation before making any comment or coming to a conclusion. In a classroom, it is better to know every student individually if possible.  It is important to give every student an equal chance and not let any bias come in mind while correcting exams or assignments. It is impossible to remove all the bias since some of it is related to the society in general but at least working on own biases is the first step. It is good to work in a diverse environment. A plus point of a diverse classroom is that it makes you more creative, hardworking and diligent. In a diverse setting, people are bound to work harder in solving problems in spite of differences. There is research backing this (Diversity Makes You Smarter). Do try the Implicit Bias Test. It is fun.

Were there any incidents involving biases in your life? Do you think biases are to stay forever? Do you think we can get away with them using some of the strategies? Let me know what you think.

Are grades good motivators?

Dan Pink puts forward the fact that incentives at a workplace do not help in improving the work or achieving a task faster.  Moreover, sometimes they hamper the task at hand. In short, incentives are not a good motivator.  He further talks about the importance of Autonomy (desire of self-driven), Mastery (desire to learn and improve without any incentive or recognition) and lastly Purpose (something you can align yourself with, want to achieve through work and contribute to the world). These points made by Dan Pink makes me think that in a way grading and assessment at the school or university level are supposed to be motivators. The question is how good are they?

Well, getting good grades might land you a job but does not necessarily guarantee mastery, autonomy, purpose or even creativity. The only way these things can be achieved is if we start to adopt a new way of learning which focuses more on learning and mastery rather than grades. If we want students to retain knowledge and transfer it further, written exams and tests alone won’t help. Practical knowledge along with the use of creativity and problem -solving needs to be adopted as well.

There is no way we can get away with the exams completely. They have their place. But there is a need for change in student attitudes. There is a need to make them think that learning is also important and not only grades. This I think can be done by incorporating new assessment techniques. Group projects involving real-life problems is one of the ways. Group projects also lead to peer assessment which is very close to the real world job scenario. I also feel that exam questions should be set more in a practical way rather than a theoretical way. Real life situations in exams will make students think of the problem at hand, analyze it, question it, use existing approaches to solve it and identify the consequences. Self-assessment by the students at the end of the class is something that is gaining popularity as well. This is where students assess their performance in the class and submit the assessment to the teacher. In the end, it is all about adjustment and change for the betterment. It does not motivate students to do better but moreover, stops their creative thinking by narrowing their approach to learning. Bad grades may also sometimes shatter you completely. So, I think a mid-way approach (improving our current grading system) is the best way forward. I am of the view that grading and exams should stay but their importance should be minimal. Learning is the main focus and should always be.

What do you think? Are the grades necessary? Are they motivating students to perform better? Is there a middle way? Can we improve the current grading system and make it more learning-centric?

 

 

Mindfulness in Education

Ellen Langer explains beautifully why most of the human beings adopt mindlessness over time? She goes on to explain that we always take the safer route in life. We tend to learn things the way we are told. Take the example of school education. We learn things according to a set curriculum that a group of educators and administrators decided. Now think of a baby. A newborn baby who does not know how to stand, talk or even crawl on its own, learns to do so by observing at other people. A baby is not forced to follow a routine but is guided by the laws of nature. A baby falls, gets up and tries again until success. As babies, we are free to think, free to move, free to observe as well as free to take the risk. There is no feeling of fear in the mind of a baby. There is no past which guides life in the future. As the baby grows, there are increasing questions in the mind about the surroundings and life. There is curiosity. This is called Mindful Learning. Learning which involves being in present, engaging, observing and learning new things without the fear of past or the goal in the future.

But as one becomes a teenager, the rules and regulations in this world start to control the thinking. This is the beginning of the mindlessness. We start to follow a set routine of school learning, homework, exams etc. We forget to learn things innovatively and creatively. We do not question the set notions of the world. We start to lack self-esteem and self-satisfaction. It is important to live and focus on the things in the present. Future is unpredictable but that does not mean the easy safe way in life is the only way forward. The more one explores, the more learning and interesting it becomes.

Mindless learning in education is very common nowadays. Bookish knowledge is good but not everything. It is necessary to explore beyond the traditional classroom teaching. New teaching techniques which encourage discussions, activities, technology, different cultures, perspectives, and contexts are becoming the need of the hour. The students need to learn mindfully so that they incorporate skills like productivity, innovation, problem-solving and increased attention span. The teachers and the present education system which is generally slow in changing needs to catch up with the changing world for the betterment of human learning. What do you think are the different ways in which the teachers and educators can encourage mindful learning in the classroom?