Tag: Julia’s story

Women and technology. If it is not appropriate for women, it is not appropriate: Part 5 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

Women and technology. If it is not appropriate for women, it is not appropriate: Part 5 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

As I mentioned in my last post about my engineering journey, I wrote a letter that got forwarded to the curriculum committee when I was an undergraduate student studying chemical engineering. I felt that the narrow focus of the chemical engineering graduation requirements, which only valued the technical aspects of engineering, resulted in “flat and uncaring human beings,” and that the education needed to include social sciences and humanities. Sending the letter brought up a lot for me—I was excited, I had put my voice out there, and I was heard. I was also vulnerable and insecure, some things that I was not so comfortable experiencing.

Once I sent the letter, a faculty member invited me to his office to discuss what I had written; I will call him Professor X. I listened as he convinced me that, based on my letter, I should not have been studying chemical engineering. Essentially, that if I wanted a more holistic education, I should not be in engineering. In his office, I believed him. I remember sitting there crying. I thought, “I should have done something else, but it was too late.” I was only two semesters away from graduation, and I decided I might as well finish the degree.

Now that I have a bit of time, research, and experience behind me, I can say that the professor was wrong, and that he never should have discouraged me. Engineering education should be more inclusive, and Prof. X should have been more cognizant of both the gender and power dynamics of the situation he created. All of those involved in engineering education need to understand the roles that gender and authority play in our field.

The first topic, that engineering should be more inclusive and holistic, is something that I have focused on a lot in the blog (I will make this paragraph short, but please do read past posts… like this one). Since engineering education was established in the United States, there has been discussion and reports regarding the need for engineering to encompass a broader base of education. It is not me who should be excluded from engineering based on my gender and ideas… it is engineering that should provide a more inclusive and holistic space.

Second, there is a gender dynamic present that cannot be ignored. I was (and still am) a woman who chose to pursue engineering. I was told explicitly in my science and engineering courses that I did not belong; more than that, I often implicitly felt a sense of separation. The first time I was singled out was in high school chemistry class. I had a male teacher who pulled me and four other students (all female) aside to tell us to enroll in another teacher’s class for the second semester because we “talked too much.” I believed he was upset with me in particular because I asked advanced chemistry questions that he was unable to answer. He may have taken this as me challenging his authority, or even thinking I was smarter than he was, as I also had one of the highest grades in the class. So I changed classes, only to have my new chemistry teacher (also male) single me out again and embarrass me repeatedly without me really provoking anything. I guess chemistry teachers talk to each other. This punishing behavior is fairly common within Science, Technology Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Female STEM students are made to feel as though they don’t have as much to offer, or that they aren’t valuable to the program.

Luckily, I had a number of female science teachers, and an engineering aunt, who made sure to pull me aside and express to me that they believed in me. They encouraged me by telling me that I showed talent. My science teacher freshman year had significant influence on me and also taught physics. She encouraged me to take physics my sophomore year, and to follow it with AP physics my junior year. Because of her advice and encouragement, I had an advanced knowledge of science. Of course, this led to my having the advanced chemistry questions that caused so many problems.

Unfortunately, I found that these damaging gender dynamics were also in play at Berkeley. I apparently was not the only woman that Prof. X singled out to have a conversation with in his office. This professor had talked to a number of women. The people that I talked to were still in the program, but it makes me wonder: how many students left the program because of these talks?

These confrontations are too common in STEM professions as a whole. I would not be surprised if more than half of the women in STEM fields could identify times when they were singled out by teachers, lab mates, faculty members, and peers and told that they did not belong. I have friends who still struggle with this regularly as graduate students, post docs, and even faculty members. It says a lot about the dedication and tenacity of the female STEM professional who goes through this type of persecution and still stays in the field. It takes a lot of bravery, passion, and hope that the STEM culture will become more inclusive.

So the third issue: power dynamics. There is a dynamic in faculty-student interactions and within the technical-nontechnical relationship. As a faculty member, there are certain roles and responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with your position of authority. What you say holds weight with students who respect you and your opinion. Prof. X may have been merely suggesting that I should not have been in engineering, or he could have been performing some sort of thought experiment. Whatever his reasoning, he should not have introduced these opinions because of his authority. His position leant the words an immediate gravitas that they didn’t deserve.

Additionally, many engineers have the tendency to dismiss the non-technical. There is an assumption that social sciences and humanities are often somehow “less-than” engineering, and do not deserve as much standing, time, or money. This power dynamic plays out in many ways, and is worth it’s own blog post. I may go into this more another day.

Overall, engineering needs to be seen as more inclusive, and all the people in power – faculty members, teachers, and employers, have a responsibility to be cognizant of gender and power dynamics present in STEM fields.

If you have had similar experiences within STEM, feel free to share in the comments below.

Image by :: De todos los Colores :: licensed under CC.  Image translation: The image above reads “If it is not appropriate for women, it is not appropriate. Women and technology.”


The need to Humanize Chemical Engineering Students: Part 4 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

The need to Humanize Chemical Engineering Students: Part 4 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

By Julia Thompson, Ph.D.

For the final assignment in my Energy & Society class in my junior year of university, we were to write a policy memo based on a topic that we learned in the class. Most students wrote about energy policy, since that was the subject. However, I decided to focus on engineering education policy because that was the most meaningful learning I had in the course. I wrote the following memo, with the support of a roommate who sat with me for about 20 hours to help me articulate what I wanted to say.

Soon after I sent it, the document was forwarded to the Curriculum Committee (I was copied on this email). This was in December, and by March there was announcement of changes for graduation requirements. They adopted three of the seven recommendations that I had presented.

The need to Humanize Chemical Engineering Students

By Julia Thompson and Luis E. Urtubey

The University of California at Berkeley has one of the top-rated chemical engineering programs in the US; but this program, with all the technical and scientific knowledge it imparts, also takes a serious toll during four years of the lives of its students. The chemical engineering curriculum is set up for making excellent engineers, but it also produces flat and uncaring human beings. It directly violates ABET accreditation criteria number 3, in the below transcribed sections, which require that students have attained:

d. an ability to function on multi-disciplinary teams

f. an understanding of professional and ethical responsibility,

h. the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context

j. a knowledge of contemporary issues

Currently the major consists of approximately 133 units, and all but 23 are strictly technical. Within those 23 units, the American History requirement, the American Institutions requirement, the Subject A requirement, and the American Cultures requirement must be fulfilled. Consequently, with the substantive time commitment and lack of emphasis on Humanities, Social Science and Ethics, the program leaves students deficient in terms of self-development and unaware of many facets of society and the wider world.

I propose to modify the curriculum into one of a more humanistic perspective. Therefore, I recommend, with the goal of satisfying the aforementioned ABET requirements, the addition of two mandatory courses focused on ethics, globalization and/or development studies. The objective of these courses would be to give a broader perspective of how engineering impacts society and the world. I would also recommend the creation of 16 to 20 elective units by the elimination of Engineering 77, MCB 102, EECS 100, the Physics 7C/Chemistry elective, the Chemical Engineering elective, the Science elective and one of the Engineering electives. The objective of this would be to give chemical engineering students the opportunity of pursuing in greater depth their interests and fostering their personal development.

The abovementioned courses for elimination are not an academic necessity, as they are not required to fulfill any of the ABET accreditation criteria (appendix I). Specific reasons for the elimination of each course are listed below (appendix II).

In conjunction with a change in the curriculum, we should also strive for a more caring classroom environment. A more humanistic approach in teaching methods and homework assignments ought to be a sought after ambition. Professors, in general, as some already do, need to address their students in a more caring and understanding manner; student’s lives are difficult, in many cases both inside and outside the classroom, and professors should be encouraged to express an understanding of this and to work with students if personal issues arise. This enables the student to feel more comfortable, and to habitually perform better.

With these principles in mind, for instance, the department should establish guidelines for homework assignments. A more consistent difficulty level must be ascertained. Currently an assignment can take from 5 to 25 hours. When taking 4 to 5 technical classes it is exceedingly difficult to plan and schedule both study and personal time, since it is uncertain how much work will be needed for any particular week; this leads, in many cases, to unneeded stress, low self esteem, and just plain poor performance.

The proposed changes, if implemented, will have little or no detrimental effects on the students’ potential performance in the workplace. It is a commonplace for professionals to tell students they do not employ much of what they studied while in school. These professionals are not always working directly as engineers, but have positions of a non-technical nature, such as management, sales or other fields. For instance, a class in economics or business could have been a wise option during their time in college. More electives would allow students to better explore their options.

Appendix I


Lead Society: American Institute of Chemical Engineers

These program criteria apply to engineering programs including “chemical” and similar modifiers in their titles:

Curriculum. The program must demonstrate that graduates have: thorough grounding in chemistry and a working knowledge of advanced chemistry such as organic, inorganic, physical, analytical, materials chemistry, or biochemistry, selected as appropriate to the goals of the program; working knowledge, including safety and environmental aspects, of material and energy balances applied to chemical processes; thermodynamics of physical and chemical equilibria; heat, mass, and momentum transfer; chemical reaction engineering; continuous and stage-wise separation operations; process dynamics and control; process design; and appropriate modern experimental and computing techniques.

Appendix II

Engineering 77 Introduction to Computer Programming for Scientists and Engineers  — Engineering  (ENGIN) 77 [4 units]

Description: Elements of procedural and object-oriented programming. Induction, iteration, and recursion. Real functions and floating-point computations for engineering analysis. Introduction to data structures. Representative examples are drawn from mathematics, science, and engineering. The course uses the MATLAB programming language. Sponsoring department: Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Basis for elimination: According to professor Reimer, this course was added to get students more comfortable with computers, since they play a fundamental role through out the program. However, students would gain more by adding a topic in chemical engineering 140 (increasing the units of that course from 4 to 5); devoting some of the discussion hours on the computer programs the course uses; and/or teaching the Graduate Student Instructors the programs that the students use.

MCB 102 Survey of the Principles of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology  — Molecular and Cell Biology (MCELLBI) 102 [4 units]

Description: A comprehensive survey of the fundamentals of biological chemistry, including the properties of intermediary metabolites, the structure and function of biological macromolecules, the logic of metabolic pathways (both degradative and biosynthetic) and the molecular basis of genetics and gene expression.

Basis for elimination: This course is not needed to understand any of the basic principles of chemical engineering. It incorporates biochemical knowledge that could be useful in certain specific fields, but not all. Furthermore, many students very vocally question the value of this course. This course should be non-mandatory.

EECS 100 Electronic Techniques for Engineering  — Electrical Engineering  (EL ENG) 100 [4 units]

Description: Analysis of passive circuits, sinusoidal steady-state response, transient response, operational amplifiers, digital building blocks, digital systems, microprocessor control, power systems, and machines. This course is not for students majoring in electrical engineering.

Basis for elimination: This class was added for chemical engineers to better interact with electrical engineers. Many chemical engineering students choose not to work in fields that require them to work with electrical engineers, therefore this class truly benefits only a few students. This course should be non-mandatory.

Physics 7C or Chemistry elective, Chemical Engineering elective, Science elective, One Engineering elective

Basis for elimination: By the end of the chemical engineering program students have substantial technical knowledge of their discipline. Six technical electives should not be required in addition to the core load. One technical elective and one engineering elective would suffice. The students would be better served by the opportunity to study subjects that are new to them or of their particular interest, for either personal development or career purposes.

Connection to my Personal journey

At the time I sent the letter, I was restless and could barely sleep. I was excited and nervous – did I overstep a boundary? I spoke my truth, and was eventually heard, but it was not an easy process. I had resistance from faculty members – one in particular who made me question if I really belonged in engineering (which I will talk about in a coming post).

Another important part of this experience, which influenced me and impacted the direction of my journey, was that I felt alone. I did not have other engineering students whom co-signed the letter. My family did not understand what I was talking about, and I had not yet found a spiritual community I could lean on. I lived in a cooperative with around 40 people that I could talk to from many majors, but none were connected to the process in which I was engaged. Eventually I connected with others that share my desire for holistic engineering, and the search to build a community of like-minded engineers has been, and continues to be, a central driving force of my journey.

Building Bridges – Part 3 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

Building Bridges – Part 3 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

By Julia Thompson, Ph.D.

After the reading about innovative cook stoves in my junior year of college (described here), the professor (Dr. Kammen) announced a talk about cook stoves. The talk was centered on an initiative to fund cook stoves as a way to reduce indoor air pollution and invited the class to attend. The presenter stated that the principal goal was to raise 50 million dollars to fund a project that would provide seed money for communities. This would grow local businesses that developed and built the stoves, and burned cleaner to reduce indoor air pollution. Over fifty percent of the world’s population uses biomass, such as wood or dung, for cooking. Many of these stoves create tiny particles that build up in the homes result in significant adverse effect on human health.

During a break, I headed to the snack bar and talked with a graduate student studying public policy. We discussed the fact that there is little co-mingling among students in different disciplines. I was probably the only engineer in the room, and I thought this was a topic in which engineers should be engaged in. She also said there was not much attempt within public policy to work with engineers. We agreed that greater collaboration was necessary.

I had to leave the talk early to go to my bio-chemical engineering course. Usually, the class consisted of lectures on formulas describing bio-reactions, such as calculating the reduction in reaction time that accompanies the use of a catalyst. This course was a chemical engineering elective, and I chose it either because it seemed the most interesting to me or because it fit in my schedule. I don’t remember.

This day, however, was unique. We had a guest lecturer, the vice president of a large pharmaceutical company. The guest lecturer described the process required to bring a drug onto the market, including the clinical trials, patents, potential governmental blocks, and the costs that it entails. He used the example of a cancer drug that cost billions of dollars to develop and required many years to receive FDA approval. He concluded the talk by reading a heartfelt letter from a woman who had cancer and was able to live longer because of the drug he and his company produced.

Connection to my Journey

Two things struck me that day. First was the separation on campus—the lack of discussion across disciplines—and the second was the inequality it represents. The engineers were not present at the cook stove talk, as that was not considered a normal topic for them. Although I don’t think engineers should go out and design all the cook stoves—the last post highlighted why that wouldn’t work—they should be involved in the discussion of appropriate technology.

The second thing that struck me was the inequality of the situation. The problems engineers faced were much more likely to impact wealthy populations and not marginalized populations. Engineers were being presented a picture that the way to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives was through major industries, like pharmaceuticals, in the comfort of their own classrooms. Large industry has a significant influence on engineering education in the United States. They serve on advisory committees, providing input on graduation requirements and courses, and in my experience that day, even the vice presidents comes in and gives lectures to the class. Thus, engineering students are presented with a clear career pathway into industry through the universities and professional societies, while I did not see any pathway present to serve disenfranchised communities.

This is the day that I discovered my passion—to build bridges: engineering, and social —and thereby open more pathways for engineers to make a meaningful contribution in marginalized communities.

I should mention that since Fall 2005, the time I am writing about here, I have learned about many engineering programs that do a good job introducing engineering students to social and environmental contexts. Here are a few – Engineering service-learning and community engagement programs, such as Engineering Projects In Community Service (EPICS) at Purdue, the Global Project Program (GPP) at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), Community Playground Project at Louisiana State University (LSU), and Humanitarian Engineering Major at Colorado School of Mines. The first three were cases for my dissertation work, and I know these programs well. This list programs are just a few that intentionally embed the engineering context in real life social and environmental context.


Image Creating Solutions illustrated by Frits Ahlefeldt 

Silent Traditions- Part 2 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

Silent Traditions- Part 2 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

By Julia Thompson, Ph.D.

The same semester that I started to prioritize my interests, I took an energy and society course and read the article, “The Silent Traditions of Developing Cooks,” by Emma Crewe. This paper initiated my reflections on the “silent traditions” of engineering and how the education system perpetuates these traditions.

In the paper, Dr. Crewe described how Americans and Europeans attempted to provide aid through cook stoves in Asia and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. These projects were being funded based on the premise that new stoves would save trees, help poor women, provide opportunities for local artisans, and reduce pollution. The “developers” were known as “stovies” and were largely mechanical engineers and energy experts with economics backgrounds. In their attempt to help people in Asia and Africa, the “stovies” came face to face with their own “silent traditions,” underlying cultural norms that ultimately resulted in the projects’ failure. Here are two incorrect assumptions the developers made through their work.

  1. Fuelwood crisis

The push to develop cook stoves was largely driven by the wood fuel crisis, a concern that the growing population of households that used biomass for their main energy production would be a main driver in deforestation. However, the “experts” on these development projects did not recognize that the greatest threat to deforestation was the clearing of land for agriculture, and not for fuel. Once the fuelwood crisis was debunked, donors began to pull their funding. It was at this time that the real needs of the community emerged, such as the need to address indoor air pollution.

Basically, the stoves were well-funded when they were useless and the funding stopped as soon as the designs started to meet the needs of the communities.

  1. Not validating the (female) users expertise

Because of the threat of deforestation, the first round of stoves focused primarily on fuel efficiency and did not prioritize the users’ experience. The stoves were designed by technical experts (mainly male engineers) and did not include the people using the stoves (mainly women). Among the engineers was an expected norm that the local customs were “backward” and were inferior to the scientific approach of the West. Additionally, women’s work was seen as inferior and disconnected from technology. These beliefs resulted in engineers working on these stoves specifically for fuel efficiency and not the cooking desires of the users. Later studies showed that many of the stoves designed by engineers were less efficient than the previous practices of the female uses. For example, Zimbabwean cooks used less fuel by building a wall around an open flame and immediately extinguishing the flame once they were done cooking, while the engineers were focused on not having an open flame to save on efficiency.

The connection to my journey

Reading this paper as an undergraduate student was an insightful experience and began a personal paradigm shift. At that time, if I were to design a stove for a community in Kenya, I would probably have done exactly what those engineers did. I would have thought that I needed to design for fuel efficiency and would have been blinded by all other dynamics. I am ashamed to say that I held many of the same assumptions and did not considering larger social issues, such as environmental degradation, gender dynamics, and power/privilege within the scope of engineering. Yet, these topics influenced engineering design.

In recent years, I have seen students at a sustainability conference highlighting their stove designs for villages in Haiti, saying that the cost was only $10 (something that would be out of reach for a Haitian) and requiring parts that would not be available on the island.

It may be easy to see the importance of these issues in the context of cookstoves; yet, similar dynamics are present throughout our society. How often do the engineers who design the distillation towers at the oil refinery recognize the communities that live downwind of these towers? Or the environmental lifecycle of the office chair? Before I read this article, I saw these concerns for “someone else”– the non-engineer. I did not know who this “person” was, but it was not me.

Now, I realize that I was a person in this “design,” that I had a responsibility to learn about the world and not just answer problems to make sure that a bridge did not collapse. I also realized that the education system has a responsibility to train students to address societal problems. If engineers are not taught about the social complexities they are situated in, and only are taught to use specific information needed to solve the problem given, they will continue to just do the work in front of them. We need complex thinkers, not cogs in a machine.

Personal Reflection

I am feeling confident about this post, and also a bit suspicious of my confidence. I got positive feedback from the first one, and that eased my worries a bit. I think this post in particular is well-written and gets to the heart of many issues. However, I have in the past thought that I was being coherent and grounded, but I wasn’t. I am pretty sure that is not happening here, but that fear is still present in me.

For a head’s up, I will be posting my story every Thursday. I have gotten a handful of people committed to contributing to the site (yay!). When the stories start coming in I will be posting those on Tuesdays.

Engineering Identity- Part 1 of Julia’s Engineering Journey

By Julia Thompson, Ph.D.

Excelling at math and sciences was embedded into my identity at a young age. On long car trips, my father would have me calculate the gas mileage and I would sit there plugging away until I figured it out.

Many people in our society believe that if you are good at math and science you are “left brained” and poor in reading, writing, and everything creative. In my life, this became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. I struggled with spelling and reading and, instead of getting a tutor, it was seen as part of my identity. My parents and teachers seemed to accept it and shrug it off. Inside, I felt incompetent in these areas.

Early in college, my abilities in math were challenged when I failed my first calculus test. As shown in self-efficacy research, being identified as good at math and getting that poor grade pushed me to study harder. I got a B in that course, and then pretty much got all A’s in community college from then on. Once I completed my pre-reqs, I transferred to UC Berkeley for chemical engineering. I knew I liked chemistry, and I was thinking I could do something with renewable energy. Like many young women and men, I had a desire to make the world a better place through science and engineering.

Being a good engineering student was my identity, and I did well with it. The first semester there, I got on the honor roll. Yet, slowly I found myself assimilating to the chemical engineering culture. My initial desire for renewable energy was not initially re-enforced within my department, and within a few months I found myself applying for internships in energy companies, specifically oil refineries. This was something that went against many of my values.

Luckily, I didn’t find an internship that summer, and decided to travel Europe instead. During that trip, I met many interesting people along the way. I started to reflect on who I was and how I expressed my life. Being an engineering student was so central to my identity, I barely had anything else. I was not exploring my other interests and I was using my engineering studies as an excuse.

Once I returned to the US, I decided to change that. I started taking judo, signed up for ceramics and I joined a research group focused on bio-fuels. My grades dropped, but it was worth it. I was still an engineer, but I was so much more. From that point on, my life started to unfold in new ways I could not fathom previously. In the following posts I will attempt to re-capture some of the stories and my discoveries. I hope you stay tuned!

Personal Reflections on this Post

I was discussing with my partner some of my concerns of this post, and she suggested that I include this thought process here- so here you go.

For my first posts to this blog, I decided to write my journey and how my worldview in engineering transformed in undergraduate. This first post in particular I feel nervous for putting out there. I my inner critic is having a field day, – “I am too caught up with something that happened 10 years ago,” “it sounds too much like a personal statement,” “the link to spirituality is not clear,” and “you really shouldn’t be sharing this.”

However, this topic is too important to me not to. There is another part of me that believes that my story will resonate with others, create a bit of comfort in other’s journey, provide me a sense of healing, and start a wider conversation about engineering identity (and not just within academic circles).

I have wanted to share this story publicly for some time, and I recognize that some people will pick it apart while others will connect to it. I am dedicated to the conversation, and so I put one foot in front of another and post.