“Diversity in the Field” courses raise awareness about workplace representation

March 5, 2018, 12:05 a.m.

Amid widespread concern about greater workplace diversity, a revamped effort to create a “Diversity in the Field” program is being taken up by Sam Feineh ’19, academics lead on the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) Executive Cabinet, with the support of faculty partners.

Diversity in the Field strives to specifically target students depending on their major through a University-required, two-unit course.

The courses will include “content that is structured around socioeconomic diversity, racial diversity — something that will better prepare students with the soft skills needed to engage in an increasingly diverse workforce,” Feineh said.

By introducing Diversity in the Field courses, Feineh hopes to complement the current Engaging Diversity graduation requirement of the WAYS system, which requires students to take a course touching on issues of diversity but lacks field-specific aspects.

Faculty partners include Sheri Sheppard, professor of mechanical engineering; Carol Muller, executive director of Stanford WISE Ventures; Shannon Gilmartin, senior research scholar at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and mechanical engineering adjunct professor; Elizabeth Hadley, Paul S. and Billie Achilles Professor in Environmental Biology; Tim Stearns, Frank Lee and Carol Hall Professor and genetics professor; Mehran Sahami, computer science professor; Jeremy Weinstein, political science professor; Hillary Cohen, research assistant at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society; and Rob Reich, political science professor.

The Diversity in the Field program was originally conceived two years ago by ASSU’s then-President John Lancaster-Finley ’16 and Vice President Brandon Hill ’16. Since then, the initiative has undergone numerous iterations. Stalled in the Faculty Senate because of what Feineh described as a University-wide “status-quo bias,” ASSU leaders eventually decided that they needed to restructure their strategy for promoting the initiative.

Instead of making it a graduation requirement, students would be “highly encouraged” to take courses that touched on issues of diversity. ASSU leaders also changed the name from “Diversity in the Major” to “Diversity in the Field” and abandoned their top-down strategy of organization to focus on a more grassroots-oriented campaign.

“[We decided to] work with individual courses across departments to build a series of test cases,” Feineh explained.

Three of those test cases include BIO 52: “I, Biologist: Diversity Improves the Science of Biology”; ENGR 117: “Expanding Engineering Limits: Culture, Diversity, and Gender”; and an ethics of computer science class that will be released for the first time next year.

Introduced three years ago, ENGR 117 is co-taught by Sheppard, Muller and Gilmartin. Though the course preceded the Diversity initiative, it was eventually incorporated into the program due to its overlapping subject matter. The class strives to “create a greater awareness of cultural diversity and diversity of people, and how that can enable us to think beyond the traditional boxes,” Muller said.

A benefit of having three instructors teaching the course is that each instructor brings their own unique perspective and motivation, she added.

“I am motivated by the central question of how can we build a better engineer,” Sheppard said. She was the only woman on the mechanical engineering faculty for 18 years. “Some of that is around the skills and knowledge piece, but a big [untapped piece] is who’s at the engineering table and what [types] of questions are being asked about who is being engineered for.”

She pointed to the Apple Watch’s initial omission of a menstrual cycle tracker as indicative of the problems that arise when an engineering team doesn’t reflect the diversity of its user base.

“Mechanical engineering is still 10 percent women,” Sheppard added. “Nationally, it’s a low number that has leveled off and doesn’t seem to be going up.”

Because of the need for greater representation in the field, Sheppard said, the class focuses on case studies in which engineering has led to social intervention and policy change.

“There’s a motivation, particularly because many of the students in the class are [in] engineering, to do something that changes stuff,” she said. “It’s our nature.”

Chelsea Onyeador ’18, a student who took the class last winter, said she liked how the new model “was specifically geared towards engineers” and that “all of the examples were pretty engineering-specific.”

However, she added that she believes ENGR 117, and similar Diversity in the Field classes, should be structured around a broader definition of diversity going forward.

“[The course] seemed to be specifically focused on gender, which in and of itself is not a problem,” Onyeador said. “But because the course was marketed as looking at engineering culture and diversity as a whole, I thought it could have done a better job at looking at other things such as race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status [and] sexual orientation.”

She also expressed her belief that the class’ teaching staff did not reflect a full range of diversity.

“A lot of guest speakers were women [and] the entire teaching staff was [comprised of] white women,” Onyeador said. “It would be great to hear from people who represent other sources of diversity.”

In an email to The Daily following this article’s original publication, Sheppard said that this year’s course takes into account several of Onyeador’s concerns regarding last year’s iteration.

Since ENGR 117 was first offered, undergraduate enrollment has sharply increased. According to Sheppard, there were around 20 students enrolled two years ago, but now enrollment is closer to 50 students.

Overall, Feineh said he hopes that the success of these individual courses will help build a model for University-wide implementation of Diversity in the Field courses.

“By next quarter, [we] have to make sure this vision is part of the long-[range] planning commission,” Feineh said, referring to the crowdsourcing process currently being used to develop ideas for Stanford’s future. “We’re just hoping to make that progress and figure out which pressure points to hit to get it out.”


Contact John Timony at jtimony ‘at’ stanford.edu.


A previous version of this article misspelled Carol Muller’s last name and misstated the size of course enrollment in 2016. The Daily regrets these errors.

This article has also been updated to include additional comment from Sheppard regarding this year’s version of the course. 

John Timony '21 is a writer for the Student Groups beat. He is an East-Coast transplant hailing from Long Island, interested in majoring in economics or political science. He also loves binging TV shows and writing film reviews. Contact him at jtimony 'at' stanford.edu

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