What Does an Engineer Sound Like?

Greses Pérez draws upon her research into the intersection of language and learning and her experiences as a woman in STEM to help open up the field of engineering

When Greses Pérez started out as a teacher, working mainly with students of color in Title I elementary schools, she was alarmed to see many of her students missing out on opportunities to engage in STEM topics.

“The population I taught was made up of Latinx, Black, and Indigenous students, many of whom were bilingual,” she explained. “They were perceived by some teachers and school administrators as not speaking the right way and therefore lacking the competencies they needed to be successful. My students, most of whom were born in and raised in the United States, received extra language support—but then there wasn’t time in their schedules for them to learn science and engineering.”

Pérez’s students yearned for exposure to those subjects, however. “They would ask me if they could come in on the weekends and do engineering and science,” she said.

Now the McDonnell Family assistant professor of engineering education at Tufts School of Engineering, Pérez recognized her students’ interest, enthusiasm, and capacity to learn and began to explore nontraditional modes of teaching them. One time, for example, she translated an English-language U.S. Department of Agriculture soil classification chart into Spanglish and added pictures to make it more accessible.

“The students followed along, learning exactly what they needed to learn,” she explained. “They were connecting ideas with meaningful implications for their communities, engaging with the material, and getting really excited about the subject.”

Moments such as that one led Pérez to her current field of research, focusing on the interdisciplinary study of language and cognition for students who experience a cultural and linguistic mismatch between the practices of their communities and those in engineering and science.

“I look at virtual and physical learning environments and consider the role of language and culture in facilitating learning,” she explained. “How can we invite people to bring their background into whatever they are learning? And into engineering and science? How can we expand the ways we communicate in science and engineering—and the ways we value and legitimize communicative practices?”

Her interests in such questions emerge partly from her own experiences and her professional background. When she worked in civil and environmental engineering, Pérez was aware that, as a Spanish-speaking Black Latina, she didn’t fit the traditional image others have of an engineer.

It was difficult enough being a woman in a field that largely lacks female and minority representation—and, in particular, women leaders—but the way she spoke also seemed to play a role, she said. Pérez observed people hearing her speak and automatically drawing conclusions about her competencies—whatever those conclusions were.

“If we look at language, culture, race, and ethnicity in respect to who becomes an engineer… [we] open ourselves up to new concepts, designs, and ideas about who can be an engineer.”

Greses Pérez

A Connection Shared with Students

Having been born in the Dominican Republic, raised partly there and partly in New York City, and studied at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, Pérez noted that people frequently judge her for the ways in which she speaks. “If I am in the Dominican community, I don’t sound Dominican enough. If I’m in the U.S., I don’t sound American enough. At engineering school, my training was in Spanglish, and I’m sure there are some people who think I don’t sound enough like an engineer.”

Of her eventual decision to become a teacher and pursue a Ph.D. in science education, she recalled that “no one could understand how I could leave a profession that people perceive as being more profitable and more prestigious to become a teacher.” But in the career change, she found a shared connection with her students.

“I could see that they knew a lot and were just being misread or misinterpreted, or that people did not want to see their brilliance, or that people thought the students needed to reach some kind of imaginary standard of language and cultural competence before they could learn engineering and science,” she said.

At the School of Engineering, Pérez brings together her personal experiences, her engineering expertise, and her training as a science educator, teaching both graduate and undergraduate students.

In her course about how language, culture, and race shape what it means to be an engineer, for example, instead of asking her students to create something new for her class, she asked them to consider language, culture, and race in the context of projects they were working on for other courses. A Latina student, Leslie Jaramillo Martinez, E23, was inspired to turn to her grandfather, who had built homemade machines to distribute seeds in soil, basing his work on generations of family experience in the United States as farmworkers and in Mexico.

Jaramillo Martinez developed a proposal for the design of a culturally sustaining machine, drawing upon her predecessors’ knowledge and aiming to make seed distribution more cost-efficient and accessible for agricultural communities with limited access to resources.

“If we look at language, culture, race, and ethnicity in respect to who becomes an engineer,” Pérez said, “and we reimagine what ways of knowing and speaking are valued in engineering, we can begin to rethink how we teach and learn the subject—and open ourselves up to new concepts, designs, and ideas about who can be an engineer.”

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