May/June 2011

Outreach 4 Change: Building a culture of inclusivity within outreach programs

By Betty Shanahan

As the number of jobs requiring engineering training grows, the number of students preparing for those careers remains level, with women and minorities severely underrepresented. In order to secure our future economic competitiveness, the U.S. must meet the challenge of increasing the engineering education system with interested, qualified students that reflect the demographic of our country.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals have a unique insight to improve participation among future engineers, working collaboratively to create an inclusive, diverse environment. Ultimately, this environment will attract more women and minorities into STEM fields, thus increasing innovation within the workplace and the size of the workforce. Now more than ever, employers must leverage diverse talent to promote fresh ideas, multiple viewpoints, and an improved organizational culture.

Studies show the low representation of women in STEM professions begins as early as eighth grade, when twice as many boys than girls show an interest in STEM careers, according to Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development, 2000. In an effort to educate and recruit more women and minorities into STEM fields, four leading, diversity-focused professional engineering societies joined forces to create Outreach 4 Change, whose mission is to make engineering a possibility for all girls of all races and ethnicities.

Made possible through funding from the National Science Foundation (HRD-0937306), Outreach 4 Change is a collaboration between the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and Society of Women Engineers (SWE) to increase the outreach capacity and effectiveness among engineering society leadership, staff, and volunteers who are striving to connect and engage girls in STEM. 

On 24 March, Outreach 4 Change held its first workshop in St. Louis, Mo., during the NSBE Annual Convention. This one-day event focused on training engineering association leaders, staff, and outreach volunteers. More than 45 participants attended, bringing their diverse perspectives and passion to this workshop.

Thought leaders from academia, engineering associations, and industry gave presentations that covered topics in outreach education, including systematic inclusion, culture of assessment, bias literacy, assessment, and proven best practices. The workshop laid the groundwork for greater collaboration among all of the Outreach 4 Change stakeholders and partners.

Strong participation from discipline-focused engineering professional societies is the critical element that transforms concepts into practice. The International Society of Automation (ISA) is one such organization committed to inclusive outreach through elected and staff leadership. Jeff Blair, ISA St. Louis Section past president, said, "I realized ISA has a timely opportunity to contribute to engineering outreach efforts. The 4 Change workshop provided strong examples of what we can achieve; these included charter school success stories, new initiatives in inner-city engineering day camps, and more. The initial workshop training and ongoing education from the sponsoring organizations can be our foundation used to continue gender and cultural awareness. Outreach can run the spectrum of the ISA-from grassroots outreach at the section level all the way up to the divisions and Society."

Outreach 4 Change is a growing community, dedicated to educating and communicating the need for outreach to all girls and the methods to do so effectively. The objectives are to build the outreach capacity among professional staff and volunteers who develop and offer these programs; engender a culture of assessment in the outreach community; create cultural awareness and integrate proven practices for underrepresented groups into outreach strategic planning and implementation; and create a network of knowledgeable society staff, members, and leaders committed to developing effective K-12 outreach activities with measureable outcomes.

It is essential the engineering community joins Outreach 4 Change in order to achieve these objectives. Outreach 4 Change focuses on creating outreach and educational activities that are research-based, assessment-based, and inclusive. This means providing easy access to research that supports STEM outreach; replacing assumptions, whether intended or unintended, with research-based activities; implementing consistent assessment practices; and integrating cultural awareness into outreach activities.

Outreach 4 Change's online resources will help organizations reach full potential in outreach capacity and effectiveness, and the Outreach 4 Change community will bring the knowledge and resources to participating organizations. For more information, visit www.outreach4change.org or e-mail 4Change@swe.org.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Betty Shanahan, CAE, F.SWE, is the executive director and CEO of the Society of Women Engineers.