February 05, 2016, BY Christina Masciere Wallace

Keith Buffinton, dean of the Bucknell University College of Engineering

The engineering field is slowly diversifying to better reflect the global population. Colleges and universities play an important role in this process by attracting, retaining and graduating diverse engineering students.

Keith Buffinton, dean of the College of Engineering and professor of mechanical engineering, discusses Bucknell's progress toward greater diversity among engineering faculty and students.

Q: Why is diversity in engineering so important?

A: The engineering field serves the needs of people in an infinite variety of environments. Engineers must be able to respond to these variables and meet the challenges presented by different projects. To accomplish this, we need a diverse population of engineers with different life experiences, skills and training. Everyone has something to contribute, and bringing these differences together creates powerful problem-solving. To create an environment where everyone can reach their maximum potential, we must recognize and celebrate differences while still providing a sense of inclusiveness.

Studies have shown a strong correlation between having a diverse population of workers at all levels of a large organization and achieving the best performance. To achieve the most in life — for yourself, for your business, for society — you need to be able to take advantage of all the diverse views that people can bring together to come up with even better ideas.

Q: What kinds of diversity are important in engineering?

A: Every kind of diversity is important — ethnic, racial, gender, gender identity and expression, and more. We need the experiences of first-generation college students, international students and students who grew up in the city or on a farm. We want Bucknell to be the place they want to be. The wider the range, the stronger the group. The students themselves and the places we draw them from will not be the same in 5, 10 or 20 years.

Q: How have demographics changed in Bucknell's College of Engineering?

A: If you try to picture a typical engineer at an American university in the 1960s, you'd probably think of a white male who is a U.S. citizen, and that would probably be correct. Things are much different now. Almost 60 percent of engineering students in the Class of 2019 are students of color, international students or women. That's a huge change.

To continue to increase the number of women in engineering, engineering must be presented as an attractive discipline for everyone, with good female role models and clear opportunities. I'm happy to say that 32 percent of our first-year students in the College of Engineering are women, a portion much higher than the national average of 19 percent. We do quite well on the faculty side with women as well — about 26 percent are women. That has changed dramatically. As recently as 2000 or 2001, there were only three women tenure-track engineering professors at Bucknell.

Q: How has the College of Engineering increased diversity?

A: Part of it is recruiting from the right places, and part of it is partnering with programs that help us identify talented prospective engineers. The University's partnership with the Posse Foundation is an important source of diversity and students with amazing leadership skills. About a third of Posse students, on average, want to be engineering students, which is great. We also draw engineering students from programs like the Community College Scholars, Bauer Scholars and Schuler Scholars programs.

A grant from the Luce Foundation a few years ago allowed us to offer $20,000 scholarships to women engineers. That program is in its final year, but with the Admissions Office we've established B-Wise — Bucknell Women in Science & Engineering, a merit scholarship that provides the same level of support for female students.

The other key is making sure we provide all engineering students with the resources and relationships they need to earn their degree once they are here. We can't just enroll them and expect them to figure everything out on their own- people have different backgrounds and needs.

Q: How do you make sure students succeed after they enroll?

A: We offer the Engineering Success Alliance (ESA) to support first-year students who come from under-resourced high schools or have less academic capital than our typical engineering students. They often need a little extra help with foundational math courses and/or navigating college life. ESA provides the academic and networking support these students need to really succeed at Bucknell, enjoy their experience and achieve their goals. They don't just survive; they thrive. We've graduated two classes of ESA students, and the impact has been significant.

We also strongly encourage faculty-student mentorship. That powerful, one-on-one connection provides the high-impact, transformative experience that leads to a successful engineering education. The University's STEM Scholars Program is one example — through it, we provide pre-matriculation summer research opportunities for students from backgrounds underrepresented in math and science fields. And of course, undergraduate research opportunities abound throughout the University.

Q: How do we keep moving forward in improving diversity in engineering?

A: First, we need to keep expanding our understanding of diversity. Second, we must consider different approaches to learning and challenge faculty to engage all students in the most effective way. Not every student learns in the same way, and not every student is going to become the same kind of engineer, so we must adapt teaching methods to a wide range of student needs. There are traditional lectures and labs, of course, but there's also writing about engineering and learning how to present ideas to non-engineers. There are field trips and hands-on building opportunities. There is multimedia and web-based learning. Finding the right approach at the right moment is the key, and it's the daily challenge our faculty are committed to addressing.