Alec D. Gallimore speaks at the Michigan Engineering Graduate Student Orientation in 2019

Equity-centered engineering: A Q&A with Alec Gallimore

Why Michigan Engineering is shifting the way it teaches and practices engineering to close gaps in society rather than widen them.

In this Q&A, Alec D. Gallimore, the Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering at the University of Michigan, outlines a new imperative for the engineering discipline.

What is equity-centered engineering?

Simply put, we need engineers to be aware of and correct for the ways their work unwittingly impacts the distribution of wealth, power and privilege in society. We need to first acknowledge who benefits and who is harmed. And after engineers understand that, we need to approach the work with an intent to close—rather than unintentionally expand—these societal gaps by ensuring equitable access to opportunity.

We already have a group here within the College that thinks like this—the Center for Socially Engaged Design. Equity-centered engineering is both a goal and a process that extends that mentality to the whole of the engineering discipline.

How do we do this? In some ways, it’s a tall order—nothing short of systemic, transformative change in how we train engineers and do engineering. And our field has largely been built by people who are among the classes who benefit, so the need for change might be invisible to many. These ideas aren’t part of most engineering curricula today.

But we’re not starting from scratch. We can build momentum by coalescing efforts already underway and learning from the social sciences. Existing research can inform how we teach engineers to advance equity as core to their professional mission and to recognize it as part of their canon of ethics. It can advise on how to work in partnership with communities in appropriate ways and create a culture that ends harassment and other forms of misconduct that can have toxic impacts.

Simply put, we need engineers to be aware of and correct for the ways their work unwittingly impacts the distribution of wealth, power and privilege in society.”

Can you talk more about the need for this kind of change?

Let me start by making it clear that society demands rigor in engineered systems. So, it goes without saying that technical excellence is a hallmark of exemplary engineering education. But in order to train the best engineers—those who are wise beyond their years of experience and possess an uncanny knack for leading teams that arrive at optimum solutions, we need to start by rethinking how we define engineering.

In my mind, an engineer harnesses knowledge of the workings of nature to improve the human condition through the development of technology and processes. I think of engineering as a people-first field. So, while engineering schools must provide the deep technical training needed to convert the knowledge of nature into technology, engineering training is incomplete without incorporating fields such as ethics, social science, the humanities, history and matters associated with diversity, equity and inclusion. We believe at Michigan Engineering that we can and must do both.

Joe Hamilton of Flint, Mich. intuitively controls a DEKA prosthetic hand for an advanced prosthetics study at the University of Michigan.
Joe Hamilton of Flint, Mich. intuitively controls a DEKA prosthetic hand for an advanced prosthetics study at the University of Michigan. Photo: Evan Dougherty/Michigan Engineering

Here’s the thing: Engineering doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The biases we know to exist in society are baked into our technologies and systems. One example is the design of the US highway system, often cutting through Black neighborhoods and disproportionately displacing those residents and their community centers. Another is AI algorithms that preferentially benefit one group over another, whether it’s the accuracy of facial recognition, decisions about job opportunities and housing, or even medical care. 

When the engineers mostly represent a small percentage of races, genders, abilities, ethnicities and backgrounds, the needs of the population at large are not adequately taken into account. And the environments in which those engineers do their work are less likely to be fully inclusive and free from harmful behaviors that inhibit everyone’s ability to do their best work. 

We come to this work with humility. As individuals and as a community, we have not always lived up to our ideals, and we continue to struggle with episodes of misconduct that fly in the face of equity and inclusion. It is not in spite of that, but in part because of that, that we feel it is critical to transform our entire approach to our work together as a College.

Engineering has unintentionally led to improvements in productivity that have entrenched or exacerbated inequality, limiting opportunities for some while increasing them for others. By many estimates, technology-enabled workers in the bottom 90% of earners continue to be more productive in recent decades, but their wages have not kept pace with the growth in GDP, and they have benefited less than many business owners.

Equity-centered engineering asks us to take stock of this situation and both understand and address its root causes. Rather than aiming to reduce the financial cost of production, it focuses on reducing the human cost of production. So instead of thinking about how to replace humans in factories, we should all be working to extend the human body and expand human performance while enhancing safety. In turn, this can open up more opportunities for all.

In addition to the moral grounds for change, there’s also a business case. Recent years have seen the rise of environmental, social and governance, or ESG, practices, which have proven to be important to the growing number of socially responsible investors. Engineers who understand these factors will be increasingly valuable in the marketplace. 

A series of icons depicting tenets of equity-centered engineering. From left to right: Put people first, ask better questions, include historically excluded, beware of inequality, inspire holistic engineers, actively avoid bias, close societal gaps, do great things and engineer differently.
Graphic: Steve Alvey/Michigan Engineering

Equity-centered design is an emerging concept. How does equity-centered engineering overlap with it, and how is it different?

These concepts overlap to a great extent. Design is a broader concept, and the work in equity-centered design can inform how we do it in engineering. The differentiator, I believe, is engineering’s focus on technology. 

Where technology is concerned, equity-centered engineering needs to start in the conceptual phase and ask not only can we do it, but should we do it? How do you bring other fields and communities into the process? What are our supply chains? How do they affect the environment and the people who live in it? Which suppliers do we choose and why? What happens to our product when it breaks, or when it reaches the end of its usable life?

Ultimately, this can lead to engineering that closes societal gaps.

Is this just a rebranding of diversity initiatives?

Certainly, this is a facet of the push for greater diversity in engineering, and rightfully so. A recently-released Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce study found that, of the nearly 1.7 million prime-age engineering workers in the United States in 2019, 81% were either White or Asian, and 84% were men. And the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics’s 2021 report on Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering found that while the unemployment rate for scientists and engineers overall is lower than the U.S. labor force, it is actually higher for those with one or more disabilities.

But historically, diversity initiatives haven’t always considered equity as a necessary piece of the puzzle, and diversity initiatives certainly haven’t extended to the solutions engineers devise. The equity-centered engineering mindset has strong ties to social justice in its broadest sense. 

One area of convergence is acceptance that humans are biased individuals, and we have to keep that in check. Even as engineers, we must always be cognizant of the bias we bring to everything we do, and how those biases affect our working climate, our solutions and our processes.

We want to train our students to thrive on and draw strength from difference, to consider and seek out people who look and think differently than they do, and to respectfully engage with and learn from stakeholders. And we at Michigan must hold ourselves accountable to root out biased or toxic behaviors that damage our goals of inclusivity and equity. We must support those who speak up and actively work towards systemic change.

Ultimately, we view diversity education and an equity-centered approach as working in tandem to prepare our students to be good leaders—wise beyond their years of experience. When we teach students to learn before they design, to learn before they lead, and to recognize and take a stand against toxic behaviors, we expect to improve not just the cultures within engineering firms but also the solutions that those firms produce.

Zannatun Alim and Fabiha Khan work on their team's robot during an open house in the Michigan Engineering Zone (MEZ) in 2019.
Zannatun Alim and Fabiha Khan work on their team’s robot during an open house in the Michigan Engineering Zone (MEZ) in 2019. Photo: Joseph Xu/Michigan Engineering, Communications & Marketing

How does this new approach translate to engineering education?

We must look at the multitude of pathways to engineering—from kids who need exposure before they’ll set their sights on engineering and other socio-technical fields, all the way to engineers and managers with decades of experience. We’re developing approaches to ensure that engineers-to-be and practicing engineers see how the values of diversity and equity play a role in technology, through both their presence and absence. 

Here at Michigan Engineering, we began a journey several years ago to incorporate teaching an equity-based framework developed by the Center for Socially Engaged Design, which was founded by faculty members Steve Skerlos, Shanna Daly and Kathleen Sienko, into our undergraduate curriculum. Thus far more than 700 students have been exposed to it through our introductory courses for undergraduates and several capstones. In this approach, we’re teaching students to ask social questions rather than just “solve problems.” 

We can’t provide that foundation if our faculty and staff aren’t also steeped in equity-centered engineering. An extension along this logic chain is that they all have to understand diversity, equity and inclusion. To that aim, we’re also finalizing plans to educate the entire Michigan Engineering community on diversity, equity and inclusion, starting with a focus on race, ethnicity and bias. 

We’re also helping students build the skills they need to thrive in diverse teams. We’ve created a framework for experiential learning that articulates core competencies like empathy and the cultural awareness engineers should have upon graduation. It follows the students’ entire academic journey. Again, this educational focus does not replace technical rigor but complements it.

Students, staff, and faculty attend the cultureXchange: Celebrating diversity through shared experience on North Campus in 2017
Students, staff, and faculty attend the cultureXchange: Celebrating diversity through shared experience on North Campus in 2017. Photo: Joseph Xu/Michigan Engineering

To truly practice these skills, you need diversity in the student ranks, and it is our hope that our efforts, combined with intentional outreach and recruiting programs, continue to increase representation and support of groups that are traditionally underrepresented in engineering. 

We also have a responsibility to help our alumni and partners in the corporate world nurture cultures that will enable our graduates to be effective ambassadors for this way of thinking. Another question for us, then, is how do we partner with companies that want to adopt or further equity-centered engineering? What should we offer our alumni so that they, too, can expand their thinking about engineering? At the same time, how can forward-thinking organizations educate us?

How do you envision adjusting the research enterprise to operate within this framework? 

Within the College, we need to broaden our vision of what is an engineering project. Broadly, the discipline thinks in a technologically focused way. We need to increase our awareness of what engineering work includes. It’s not limited to the boxes we draw. Social dimensions are just as much a part of the field as technical dimensions.

Prof. Lola Eniola and Mario Gutierrez studying the effect of red blood rigidification on the thermodynamics of blood flow
Lola Eniola and Mario Gutierrez studying the effect of red blood rigidification on the thermodynamics of blood flow. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski/Michigan Engineering

To really integrate equity-centered engineering into the research enterprise, we’ll need leadership from the funding agencies. Some of our faculty are out in front on this. Chad Jenkins has called for applying existing civil rights statutes to how government funds are distributed in support of scientific advancement. Lola Eniola-Adefeso has organized many of her colleagues to put pressure on the National Institutes of Health to close racial disparities in health research funding. The NIH recently issued an apology and promised to do more to close these gaps.

And we’ve seen the power of researchers getting out of the lab and engaging with communities—how it changes the way they think about what it means to have an impact. You can look at the way Nancy Love’s work in Flint created jobs for local people who helped gather water samples and train other residents on how to use point-of-use filters. And it was a two-way benefit. Those community members brought their social capital to the effort. 

Likewise, a technologist might look at mobility as primarily a self-driving car problem. But in many ways self-driving cars are an expensive solution for what is fundamentally a problem of access. Access to food, education, healthcare, leisure. What are the solutions we need to broaden access to these necessities? Meaningful engagement with the community changes the lens and focuses engineers on the solutions that people really need, and the solutions they can afford, rather than solutions we dream up. Jerry Lynch and the Urban Collaboratory—a collaboration with the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning—are engaging in this way with communities in Detroit and Benton Harbor. In fact, Love and the Urban Collaboratory have developed five principles of engagement that others can use to do this.

Nancy Love and her collaborator from Wayne State University Shawn Mc Elmurry calibrate a testing instrument for a day of sampling water in Flint neighborhoods.
Nancy Love and a collaborator from Wayne State University calibrate a testing instrument for a day of sampling water in Flint neighborhoods. Photo: Marcin Szczepanski/Michigan Engineering

How big a dent can Michigan make in the inequities that currently exist in engineering?

Regardless of the dent we can make, I believe that as a public institution, it’s our duty to address inequity. But I’m optimistic about our potential for impact. People watch what Michigan does, in both public and private institutions. They root for us because when we are successful, they have license to push at home. 

One example of this is NextProf, a program that aims to address the lack of diversity in academia by demystifying academic life and the hiring process for graduate students from underrepresented groups. When we launched it, students went back to their own institutions and talked about Michigan Engineering paying for the program out of pocket. Now Georgia Tech, Berkeley and UC San Diego are partners and NextProf hosts. 

But we don’t lead all the time. When other institutions forge ahead, we need to throw our weight behind them too. Like geese, we take turns at the head of the echelon.

Then there’s the matter of scale. We’re one of the largest engineering colleges in the country. And with Michigan Engineering students in high demand, we believe that we can influence corporate America as equity-centered engineering becomes an important value for attracting their next generation of engineering leaders.

We may start with a ripple, but my hope is that it becomes a wave.