article Featured Spring 2024

Engineering Inclusion: The Historic Impact of the IEDE Student Center

For nearly 50 years, the IEDE Student Center has evolved to improve climate and feelings of belonging for students within the College of Engineering, building a network of diverse engineers.

Conversations regarding diversity in education date back centuries. While American universities began offering degrees in engineering in 1817, it took 59 years for the first woman in the United States, Elizabeth Bragg, to earn a degree in Civil Engineering. Another 32 years passed before George Biddle Kelley earned his degree in Civil Engineering, becoming the first African American to do so. Even in the late 1960s and early 1970s, women and people of color made up a tiny fraction of students pursuing college degrees in STEM. 

What would later become the Inclusion Equity and Diversity in Engineering (IEDE) Student Center opened in the late 1960s to combat these issues, emerging in a period when the federal government funded “minority engineering programs” at several universities to build a more inclusive network for engineering students. 

Mary Fitzpatrick, the Director of Diversity Research and Program Evaluation, explains that the IEDE Student Center grew from “the federal government recognizing that we had an interest in diversifying the field of engineering.” In its first years, “the focus was particularly on supporting underrepresented students of color and women of all races,” Fitzpatrick explains. 

Today, the Student Center supports students through student organizations, advising, and scholarship programs like the Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity, which supports students financially and helps them build a network as they enter the workforce. Dean of the College of Engineer, Ian Robertson reasons, “the environment within the college must be welcome and inclusive where everyone feels they belong in the College of Engineering.”

Students utilizing the IEDE space for collaborative discussions.

Six identity-based student organizations further build community and offer resources for students of various minority groups – three of which focus on gender identities historically underrepresented in science and engineering. These include the Society of Women Engineers, Queer and Trans Engineers (QTE), and Graduate Women in Science. Bella Hacohen, the Vice President of Finance of QTE, emphasizes the importance of the Student Center in supporting her organization.

“There would be no QTE without the IEDE Center,” Hacohen emphasizes, describing the various success summits IEDE offers that QTE participates in. Hacohen also stresses the importance of the collaboration between the identity-based student organizations, as members of respective leadership teams meet regularly to help each other and to gain insight from IEDE staff.

UW-Madison also boasts a percentage of female identifying engineers of 28%, far above the national average of 17%, in part due to the programs in place to support students, whatever their needs. While this may seem meager, just a decade ago, less than 20% of engineering students at UW-Madison identified as female. Hiring of staff and faculty across the college also reflects this effort as 33% of assistant professors across engineering departments identify as female. Robertson remarks, “we still have work to do, but we are headed in the right direction.”

Three additional student organizations, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society, focus on uplifting students of color pursuing degrees in engineering. Carlos Gallegos-Coronado, the Vice President Internal of SHPE explains his efforts toward representing his culture and community.

“We make the most effort for Latine Heritage Month through displays and educational programming that celebrate the accomplishments of notable Latine STEM figures,” Gallegos-Coronado recalls. “It’s important to us that people from other backgrounds get the chance to learn about ours. But more importantly we value that Latine individuals feel empowered to pursue their education in Engineering and other STEM related fields.”

“The environment within the college must be welcome and inclusive where everyone feels they belong in the College of Engineering.”

Dean Ian Robertson

Though this work is making a difference in the UW-Madison College of Engineering community, it is far from complete. “If students don’t see any faculty that look like them, there is an implicit message that ‘you don’t belong here. This isn’t a place for you.’ We want all students to believe that they belong here,” Fitzpatrick explains. 

The UW-Madison College of Engineering’s approach to diversity and inclusion continues to evolve. With the move from 1410 Engineering Dr. the IEDE Student Center will be renamed the Engineering Student Center to recognize that diversity and inclusion go deeper than just the color of one’s skin, their country of origin, or their gender identity. This new center will feature more staff members, offer more services to better serve students, and exist in a more welcoming space as an extension of the Huibregtse Family Commons.

Through this new center, the College of Engineering hopes to support all students: veterans, students with disabilities, first generation college students, students from rural backgrounds, students with children, students from low-income backgrounds, and the list goes on. 

When UW-Madison first began its efforts toward increasing diversity, focus centered more on statistics and easily measured outcomes of diversity. While those remain important, the College of Engineering has pivoted to a more complex vision of diversity, one that may prove harder to measure. “If we just bring people here, but we don’t have the right environment, that’s not good enough. That’s not success,” Robertson clarifies.

While there is still so much to improve upon, one thing is for sure – the College of Engineering community cares far more about the climate, inclusion, and diversity in engineering far more than ever before, driving the education practices of engineers into the future.

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