Michigan Tech Takes Hands-On, Teamwork Approach to Diversity Training

Incoming students to Michigan Technological University’s mechanical engineering program this fall can expect more than a standard engineering education with the introduction of a newly designed hands-on curriculum that incorporates diversity training.

The university’s Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics was selected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as one of five mechanical engineering departments nationwide to participate in a new diversity training program. The Transforming Engineering Culture to Advance Inclusion and Diversity (TECAID) program is aimed at diversifying mechanical engineering education, making it more inclusive of women and underrepresented minorities.

Students in the mechanical engineering program at Michigan Technological University
Students in the mechanical engineering program at Michigan Technological University

“We’re always striving to have better students, and this is one thing we’ve really never had — teaching the students about diversity and how to appreciate diversity and [their] differences,” says Gregory Odegard, associate chair, director of undergraduate studies, and professor of computational mathematics at Michigan Tech.

Through the program, the department is working with TECAID consultants and other participating institutions, which include Texas Tech University, the University of Oklahoma, Oregon State University, and Purdue University. Schools and consultants participate in three two-day workshops — the first one took place in April, with the others scheduled for October and February — as well as monthly conference calls.

Consultants provide reports to each school to help them address any issues they notice and advise them on how to incorporate change, while universities assist each other by sharing ideas and best practices.

“At each meeting, we talk about our progress,” Odegard says. “Each of us is doing something slightly different, but for all five universities, it’s diversity-related. So we each talk about what we’ve done, we give each other ideas, and sometimes we get suggestions on resources.”

For Michigan Tech, which was already in the process of developing a new mechanical engineering curriculum, the TECAID program came about at the perfect time. Odegard says the department is incorporating elements of diversity into four of the program’s core classes: Mechanical Engineering Practice I, II, III, and IV. Students complete these courses in their second and third year in the program.

A main focus of these classes, Odegard says, is teamwork.

“In the first semester,” he says, “we’re going to expose them to basic aspects of teaming; that is, when they work together in their group, we’re going to teach them how to get to know the other students, how to work in a group, how to set an agenda, how to get to know everybody’s strengths, and how to communicate early on with their teammates and make sure [everyone] understands each other’s limitations.”

Odegard hopes that this infusion of diversity into the new hands-on curriculum will not only help students better understand and appreciate diversity, but will also enable them to work well with people of different backgrounds — which, Odegard believes, will put them on the path toward a successful career.

“What we really want is for students to come out of this as better engineers,” he says. “Engineers are so involved in technology, and more and more are working together. What we’d really like is for them to go into their careers being able to work with others very well, because they’re going to be working in teams whatever company they work for, and we want them to be very effective team members and leaders.”