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Seeing the Invisible: The Year This White Woman Spent Learning at an HSI

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Special Topics: Conscious Considerations

Tagged Divisions

Equity and Culture & Social Justice in Education

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Lizabeth L. Thompson California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

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Dr. Lizabeth Thompson is a professor in Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. She has been at Cal Poly for nearly 30 years and has held various positions on campus including Co-Director of LAES, Director of Women’s Engineering Programs, and CENG Associate Dean. Her research is in Engineering Education, particularly equitable classroom practices, integrated learning, and institutional change. She spent last academic year at Cal State LA where she taught and collaborated on research related to equity and social justice. With her colleagues at Cal State LA she recently received an NSF grant called Eco-STEM which aims to transform STEM education using an asset-based ecosystem model. Specifically, the Eco-STEM project focuses on shifting the metaphor in STEM education from a factory model to an ecosystem model. This Ecosystem model aspires towards an organic and healthy environment that nurtures students, faculty, and staff to become individuals fulfilled professionally and personally. She is also a co-advisor to Engineers without Borders and Critical Global Engagement at Cal Poly.

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I have been teaching engineering for 27 years, 26 of them at a predominately white selective state university in a college town, PWI University. Last academic year I spent a year teaching at a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) located in a large urban area, HSI University. This paper highlights some of the insights that the students, staff, and faculty taught me.

Of course, we each have a point of view, a lens through which we see the world. Mine was formed long before I was born and shaped by forces beyond me. I come from much generation privilege with advantages of resources and connections. I am tall and white and have only seen the world through my blue eyes. I am also a woman in engineering, and I identify as queer. All these identities have shaped me so that I encounter the world in a certain way. One of the reasons I decided to spend a year at an HSI is to challenge myself to seek out other points of view. In order to do this, I attended classes and labs so I could talk to students and get a glimpse from their viewpoint. I created small discussion groups in my engineering classes so I could attend to the perspective of my students. What I found is a group of thoughtful, kind, funny, and smart students. They are in no way deficient but have assets beyond what I see in the PWI where I have spent most of my time. They revealed to me with poignant stories and teasing laughter the limited way in which I see the world. I realized that at my home institution, voices like theirs are so quiet, so drowned out, that only when I can gather with and listen to them, do I have a small chance to grow and learn.

This paper will delineate the lessons I learned in four broad categories each with examples: 1) There is a great lack of resources at state schools that serve students of color even as there is the greatest need in these institutions. 2) Much of what we do in Engineering Education is designed by white people for white people and 3) The overwhelming adjective to describe Latinx students is “respectful,” but I now see this as reinforcing authoritarianism and hinders learning, and finally 4) Many students struggle with basic needs which must be addressed before learning can happen.

It is my hope that others from elite and selective institutions like PWI University can see the value in learning through participation with institutions serving those who have historically been excluded and marginalized from higher education and engineering.

Thompson, L. L. (2021, July), Seeing the Invisible: The Year This White Woman Spent Learning at an HSI Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--37703

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