When imagining the future, our thoughts inevitably turn to technology — artificial intelligence, nuclear fusion, cloning, spacecraft. But what about the humanity of the future? Who will we be when tomorrow comes?
As Cal Poly Pomona charts its path for the coming decades, it will inevitably look at technology’s role in education, but it will also focus on the changing face of its faculty, students and the communities it serves. It’s a process that is already well underway.
These changes are perhaps most evident in the College of Engineering, which, like the rest of the university, began as an all-male and largely white institution. The college is now much more diverse, with a student body that is 25 percent Asian, 32 percent Hispanic and 26 percent white.
“Society has changed, and engineering has changed with it,” says Engineering Dean Mahyar Amouzegar.
“Twenty-five years ago the number of women and other historically underrepresented groups was small, but there was a clear, positive trend for Hispanic engineers,” Amouzegar says. “Today, one-third of the population of the college is composed of Hispanic engineering students, making the college the seventh-largest Hispanic engineering school in the country.”
There is still more progress to be made, however, especially when it comes to women and African Americans, and the college is focusing on ways to help those groups succeed.
That’s important, not only for local communities and the university, but for engineering as a whole, says Breanna Haigler, a second-year industrial engineering student.
“Everyone has their own background. If you have someone from every different group, you’ll have so many different ways of thinking, and that will help you come up with the best possible solution,” she says.
Providing Role Models
Haigler is the kind of student the college wants to recruit. She is a member of the Kellogg Honors College, an ambassador for the Women in Engineering Program, and an officer for the Cal Poly Pomona section of the Society of Women Engineers. But Haigler says she might not have even considered engineering if not for the encouragement she received from her father and teachers.
“Role models are extremely vital,” Haigler says. “I probably wouldn’t have looked into engineering without them.”
Amouzegar, too, says his decision to become an engineer was influenced by his admiration for family members who were part of the profession.
“I think role models are amazingly important,” Amouzegar says. “There was always somebody who took an interest in me. There was someone to look up to, someone to guide me.”
Many of Cal Poly Pomona’s students are fortunate to have strong educational role models in their lives, but others from underprivileged backgrounds might not. The college is working to fill that void in a variety of ways, such as the Women in Engineering Program, which sends female engineering students to local schools to lead hands-on engineering activities.
“They bring us out there to let the students know they can do it,” Haigler says. “We’re trying to build a relationship that’s not going away.”
The program also provides mentoring for incoming students, pairing them up with older, more experienced women in the major.
“We have a lot of first-generation college students, so they might not get the mentoring at home,” Amouzegar says.
Another way the college is building its future is by hiring faculty whom students can relate to.
“When you sit in a classroom of 50 and you’re the only woman or the only African American, it’s not comfortable,” Amouzegar says.
Saeideh Fallah-Fini, an assistant professor in the industrial and manufacturing engineering department, is a member of the younger, more diverse crop of instructors joining the college.
She says when she began her college education in Iran in 1997, engineering was still a male-dominated field, but a few outstanding female professors showed her she could make it as well.
“I had a couple of great teachers — female teachers — who made those classes so enjoyable,” Fallah-Fini says. “I was seeing someone who was completely perfect in those aspects.”
Those teachers, she says, taught her the importance of going the extra mile to help struggling students.
“I see the reactions of the students right in front of me when they get a subject that has been difficult,” she says. “Because of that, I feel like I’m making a little difference in their lives.”
Teaching the Teachers
One stumbling block in recruiting more women into engineering is that some female students develop an aversion to math and science early in their education. That’s sometimes because their teachers have not been exposed to engineering and its creative aspects.
“Unfortunately, some of the high school and middle school teachers, without really noticing it, tend to discriminate against women. They call on men more often, encouraging them to participate more,” Amouzegar says. “It’s not intentional, but this simple action dissuades some of the young girls from considering science and engineering. That’s been one of the impediments. We just don’t grow them enough, not just in engineering, but in all of STEM fields.”
The College of Engineering is a regional training center for Project Lead The Way, a nationwide program that aims to change that, starting with the teachers. Each summer, educators from dozens of local schools come to campus for a two-week boot camp on engineering education.
They return to their classrooms with an enhanced understanding of engineering and a variety of engineering projects for their students.
The annual Robot Rally has similar aims but targets elementary school students and their teachers. Last year, teachers from 13 local schools received hands-on lessons in robotics from Mechanical Engineering Professor Mariappan Jawaharlal. They took those lessons back to their students, who spent months crafting small robots that competed against each other in a massive event in the spring.
The results speak for themselves. Since 2007, the percentage of female engineering students has increased noticeably, and they now make up 22 percent of incoming freshmen. And the number of African American engineering students has doubled, making the college the second-largest engineering school in California in terms of black engineers, Amouzegar says.
Amouzegar says that with each passing year, engineering moves further and further from its past as a profession suited only for men with crew cuts, white shirts, black ties and omnipresent pocket protectors.
“A whole generation of engineers is coming up who tend to be more gender blind and color blind,” he says.
That’s encouraging news for Haigler, who sees female engineers like herself finally catching up with their male counterparts.
“I think in 10 to 15 years it’s going to be 50-50.”