Privilege is often not recognizable by those who benefit from the consequential unearned advantages (McIntosh, 2010). Undetected, this “invisible knapsack,” as defined by Peggy McIntosh, perpetuates through intergenerational inheritance, normalizing the resulting inequities. In the United States there are entrenched notions of superiority and inferiority tied to many socially constructed identities such as race, ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status. The subsequent hierarchies place whiteness, European traditions, masculinity and middle-to-high socioeconomic status at the top, entitling those who can assume these descriptors and disadvantaging those who cannot. The engineering profession, inclusive of the higher-education system that facilitates the training of its practitioners, is often portrayed as an “enterprise in which power relations play no part, [and access is] based solely on meritocratic judgments about eligibility and skill” (Slaton, 2015, p. 171). However as we review the engineering population, both past and present, critically examining the identities of those who benefit most from its achievements, those who comprise its membership, and those whose cultural norms and values are most reflected in its epistemologies; the presence of an invisible knapsack becomes apparent (Baillie, Pawley, and Riley, 2012; Bix, 2000, 2004; Douglas, 2015; Riley, 2008; Slaton, 2010, 2013, 2015). This knapsack, curated over many generations, under the guise of maintaining rigor, bestows the greatest advantages on white, able-bodied males from middle-high socioeconomic status. Consequently, as is most reflected in the limited diversity among engineering professionals, faculty, and students; people from minority populations, and all women in general, experience the greatest disadvantages in participating in, shaping, or influencing the nature of engineering practice in the United States.
At a small, private, liberal arts university, as part of a National Science Foundation Revolutionizing Engineering and Computer Science Departments (RED) grant, a team of faculty are working on moving from teaching engineering as a purely technical endeavor to a sociotechnical endeavor. One important aspect of helping students understand the sociotechnical nature of engineering involves exploring privilege, both within the discipline and within the societal structure where it is practiced. In this interactive session, the facilitators will invite participants to engage in a subset of activities that have been used in two engineering courses (i.e., User Centered Design and Engineering and Social Justice) to help students learn about privilege, its relationship to different -isms, such as racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism, and the role engineering plays / can play in reinforcing or dismantling that privilege.
The facilitators will share their experiences and lessons learned in using these activities with engineering students, and invite participants to share their insights based on their participation in the session. The session will also consist of an open discussion around challenges in integrating content around privilege, -isms, and power relations in other engineering courses, and strategies to overcome these challenges.
Session activities will be drawn from the following two engineering courses:
User Centered Design - a required course for all first or second year engineering majors which introduces students to strategies for first identifying the needs, capabilities, and behaviors of a user and developing designs to accommodate those needs.
Engineering and Social Justice - a junior-level required course for General Engineering majors that is designed to help students use critical literacy practices to analyze the historical, social, political, and economic impacts of engineering in marginalized communities. Students also consider the contemporary contexts and impacts of the designs, systems, processes, and products surrounding and involving engineering and engineers.
For those interested in: Broadening Participation in Engineering and Engineering Technology and New Members
Assistant Professor, Industrial Engineering
Professor & Chair, General Engineering
Assistant Professor, General Engineering
Assistant Professor, General Engineering