Closing the Opportunity Gap in STEM Education

Pushing for greater equity and inclusion in science education and engineering helps address inequities across the board, Gilda Barabino tells Tufts audience
Gilda Barabino. Pushing for greater equity and inclusion in science education and engineering helps address inequities across the board, she tells Tufts audience
“One thing I noticed is that our field is not just about the technology—it’s about the people,” said Gilda Barabino.
November 30, 2020

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There are good reasons to be hopeful about science education and its effects on social justice, said Gilda Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering, in the first School of Engineering Dean’s Lecture on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEM.

“We can use STEM as an enabler, as a tool, to address inequalities across the board,” she said. “What’s also really exciting is that young people right now are very well attuned to the issues of social justice and what they can do about it.”

In a Nov. 20 online conversation with Chris Swan, School of Engineering dean of undergraduate education and associate professor, Barabino shared the values that shaped her career trajectory and told why diversity in STEM fields remains so important.

Barabino has devoted her career to advancing equity in science and engineering. A respected scientist and articulate voice for change in higher education, she is founder and executive director of the National Institute for Faculty Equity.

Raised in a military family, Barabino earned a B.S. in chemistry from Xavier University and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Rice University. She has been vice provost for undergraduate education at Northeastern University, associate chair for graduate studies at Georgia Tech and Emory University, and Georgia Tech’s inaugural vice provost for academic diversity. Prior to being named Olin’s second president in July this year, she was dean of the Grove School of Engineering at the City College of New York.

Fascinated by chemistry since high school, she followed a chemical engineering path and researched sickle cell disease, which disproportionally affects Black Americans; the research is her way, she said, of giving back to the community. She is also a professor of biomedical and chemical engineering at Olin.

The online discussion built on the School of Engineering’s commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM, taking steps to ensure that “engineering can and should serve as an engine for good, not only for technological advancements, but also for building a more just, equitable, inclusive, and diverse culture that impacts the world beyond its disciplinary boundaries.”

Following are excerpts, lightly edited, from the conversation, which is available on YouTube.

Driven by a need for equity. My personal driver has always been equity. I’ve chosen career-wise to do that through engineering education and research. I strongly believe that if we want the world to be a better place, we would eliminate those barriers that contribute to these gaps in health, in wealth, in education.

It’s also important for us to take leadership roles and use them in ways that we can effect change. The time is now. The country is more awakened to inequality now, so there is a reckoning around social justice. There is a reckoning around science and engineering having truth. There is a reckoning about providing more opportunity—because it is the opportunity gap that makes the biggest difference.  

On being the “first and only.” When I started the graduate program in chemical engineering at Rice, I was the first African American, male or female, to be admitted to that graduate program. That was only 15 years after Rice had admitted its first African American undergraduate and graduate students. That context—of being first and only—that did impact my career path and the way that I thought about it.

When I entered the academy at Northeastern in 1989 in chemical engineering, I was the first African American female to hold a tenure track position in chemical engineering in the nation. So again, being one of only a few does impact your career and your career choices. . . . You’re operating in a system where they are not really used to looking at people like you. 

So how do you navigate that system? That’s something that’s been important to me in terms of thinking about what I learned from that experience, that I could share with others, particularly so that others don’t have to go through the same kinds of things that I went through.

Difficulties and overcoming challenges. One thing I noticed is that our field is not just about the technology—it’s about the people. I learned the importance of socialization. How do you become a member of the profession, learn the spoken and unspoken rules, learn the technology, but also how to use it and to use it in a way that you’re actually part of the profession as a practitioner?

What I understood is that there are ways to move forward, whether you’re isolated or not. There are ways to have support networks. There weren’t people who looked like me to help guide me, but there are other ways to connect and to stay focused on what it is we are trying to accomplish. There is a body of work that we need to do and that work can speak for itself. 

The track toward college president. I applied what I learned in the social science literature to help me navigate the pathways in my career. And in doing that, I realized it wasn’t just me. There were others who had the same kind of issues. How do we come together and apply that to progressing these technical fields?

One of the reasons why I entered an administrative path in the first place was to have a broader impact. Because one of the things that I learned: you have to have a seat at the table. You have to be part of decision making. You have to know where the decisions are being made and we need diverse perspectives where those decisions are being made.

My first administrative role was at Northeastern University as a vice provost for undergraduate education. That helped me understand the dynamics within an institution, it helped me understand higher education, it helped me understand the gatekeeping blocks and how we use policies and practices in a way that they are more inclusive.  

On being a college president. This position has allowed me to operate on a bigger platform, and in that way to make a wider difference. Leaders do make a difference, and there is no substitute for a president. I believe that the experiences I had all along [at Northeastern, Georgia Tech and City College of New York] were formative and transferrable—just the right alignment of professional goals and the mission of the institution.

What’s really exciting me is that Olin started roughly 20 years ago, and the mandate was to transform engineering education, to have constant change and innovation, to tie entrepreneurship with liberal arts and engineering—training the whole engineer—to look at students as co-creators of the learning environment. That, plus an institution mission for social justice, that combination—I could not have found a better fit.

Defining the future. It’s important to have inclusive environments and environments that actually support the individual, that meet them where they are, and bring them into the community of practitioners. The other piece is: how do you match up the desires of people wanting to make a difference in the world and the educational experience that they have?

The literature shows us that women and underrepresented minorities in particular are drawn to fields that allow them to have that societal impact. Olin started with the precept that there would be gender equity. From the beginning there’s always been roughly 50 percent women in every class.

We know that diverse teams come up with better solutions. So that approach, that philosophy, builds values and drives our diversity, equity, and inclusion. They are important because they are ways to attract and retain those people from underrepresented groups, both students and faculty.

Reasons to be hopeful about STEM and social justice. Here’s why I’m so excited about STEM education and STEM research. We can use STEM as an enabler, as a tool, to address inequalities across the board. What’s also really exciting is that young people right now are very well attuned to the issues of social justice and what they can do about it.

They are very attuned to wanting careers where the science and technology background is an enabler for them to do good in the world. And they’re vocal about it. They are ready for it. We know that the youth, those with fresh ideas, will move us forward. That is the most exciting thing to me. You’ve got this cadre of young people saying: I want it. I want it now.  

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.