Three alumni reflect on the impact that UW Engineering’s PEERs program has had on their work as engineers and computer scientists.
To improve diversity across engineering, and to provide students with a framework to understand why it matters, the College of Engineering offers the course Promoting Equity in Engineering Relationships (PEERs). Unlike traditional engineering classes, PEERs is a discussion-based seminar; students engage with original diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) social science research and apply it to engineering. Students who complete the class can become PEERs Leaders, helping to educate campus and community audiences about how to apply DEI concepts to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
The program has been co-led by Joyce Yen, UW ADVANCE director, and Sapna Cheryan, professor of psychology, since they developed it in 2009. Originally offered once a year, it now meets every quarter, with a section offered to first-year engineering students through the College’s E-FIG program.
“Our goal has always been to produce engineers who think about engineering’s impact, who approach it more inclusively, and who recognize how DEI efforts align with engineering excellence and leadership skills development,” says Yen. “We want students to ask themselves, ‘What is the role you’re playing in advancing and supporting DEI?’”
The College of Engineering’s Chelsea Yates spoke with three alumni about what they remember most from PEERs and how they’ve applied the course’s teachings in their professional careers.
Mishaal Aleem, Flight Software Engineer, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)
B.S., Aeronautics & Astronautics, 2015
What do you do at JPL?
I develop flight software tests for the Europa Clipper mission, which will investigate whether Jupiter’s icy moon Europa could have conditions suitable for life. My focus is on flight software modules for science instrument management and spacecraft timekeeping. I’ve been at JPL for about two years; before that I worked in similar roles at Boeing.
Why did you take the PEERs class?
The course summary mentioned diversity and engineering; at the time, I hadn’t had any classes even remotely like that. Engineering courses focus on technical skills development and problem-solving, but rarely are students asked to question those processes. Engineering has a long history of bias, exclusion and inequities. What happens when we consider engineering in this context? PEERs encourages students to think about the field as a problem to be solved.
What do you remember most about PEERs?
I remember many of the studies we discussed, such as how for years crash test dummies were designed based on men’s bodies and how the resumes of job candidates with non-traditional names tend to be considered differently than others. As someone with a non-traditional name, this one really struck me.
I also learned the term “imposter syndrome” in PEERs. I think it is something every engineer — particularly women and minorities — experiences. When I’ve had these moments, I’ve been able to pause and remind myself what it is, why it’s happening, and think through my anxiety rather than get caught up in it. This had the biggest impact on my professional career.
The class didn't teach me new formulas or show me how to derive something new, but it made me a better engineer. It expanded the way I think as well as my confidence. All engineering students should be required to take courses like PEERs for personal and professional development as well as to advance the field.
Why does DEI matter in tech and engineering?
Engineers are tasked with solving difficult problems. To do so, we need to think in new ways and with new people at the table. DEI is about creating access, allowing space at the table for everyone who wants to be there. We might need to build a bigger table, point the way to the table, or make other adjustments but ultimately these actions are critical because diverse groups yield better solutions and have the best potential to solve complex problems. Diverse groups think differently; it’s not about one woman or person of color introducing a totally radical idea, it’s about elevating the group’s overall awareness to difference.
Dustin Richmond, Postdoctoral Researcher, Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering
B.S., Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, 2012
Tell us about your current role.
Being a postdoc is similar to being a junior faculty member, but it involves a lot more learning while doing. I mentor students and support our research group’s academic and research needs, ensuring work gets done while building an inclusive community across our team. My goal is to become a tenure-track professor.
How would you describe PEERs to someone unfamiliar with it?
PEERs helps students understand barriers to equity in engineering as they apply to race, gender and other kinds of difference. It also teaches that equity work is a lifelong learning process. And that we will make mistakes along the way and will get called out, because everyone does. And when that happens, just accept it and learn from it.
I took the class nine years ago, but even then we covered topics like implicit bias, privilege, microaggressions and stereotyping and learned why things like gender pronouns and correct name pronunciation matter. The class is for students across all areas of engineering who want a more inclusive engineering environment and want to develop the skills to be leaders in this transformation.
What’s an example of how you’ve applied something you learned in PEERs beyond the class?
During graduate school, I was invited to participate in student meetings with candidates for faculty jobs and provide feedback as to who would be the best fit. But we weren’t given any criteria on which to base our evaluations. Often the questions were inconsistent, and sometimes unfair questions came up: once someone actually asked a candidate if she had a husband who would come along if she got the job. In PEERs I’d learned how and why to use rubrics to evaluate fairly, so I volunteered to develop one for our meetings with candidates. It made a big difference — not only did it help cut down on bias and ensure the same questions were asked of the candidates, but it also gave us students guidelines to evaluate efficiently and effectively.
Why should engineering students take courses like PEERs?
Weaving DEI into our work is the thing we should all do. But how do we do this if it’s not a part of our traditional engineering curriculum? In order to learn, we have to ask questions and engage in challenging dialogue. I wish students wouldn’t have to wait until college to have these conversations, but until that changes students should definitely take courses like PEERs. It’s a safe space for students to ask difficult questions about race, gender, bias and inequities and get difficult answers.
Kate Schultz, Data Scientist, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL)
B.S., Chemical Engineering, 2017
Tell us about your work in data science.
At PNNL, my research focuses on computational drug discovery. My team is exploring how to use AI and other computational techniques to find drugs to treat cancers and neurological diseases like Alzheimer's. It’s a great combination of my ChemE background and my master’s work in computer science and data science.
How has the PEERs course influenced your career?
The PEERs class — and Sapna Cheryan in particular — influenced my decision to go to grad school for computer science. Computer science and data science are very related, and there’s a lot of work to be done to make both fields more equitable. Thanks to PEERs I decided I wanted to be a part of that change.
PEERS introduced me to tools to be an ally and address issues of privilege and inequity as I moved through grad school and into my data science career. I have a responsibility to consider DEI every day in the work I do. There’s a common misconception that data is numbers and numbers don't lie, therefore data is clean and trustworthy. But data and the systems for data collection, analysis and interpretation are produced by humans. So data can be biased. As a data scientist, I need to ask questions about whether the data I’m working with are fair and equitable. If they’re not, I have a responsibility to address it.
You were a PEERs Leader — what did that entail?
PEERs Leaders are involved in campus and community outreach. Students can apply to become Leaders after they complete the course. I worked with other PEERs Leaders to develop and give presentations for campus groups and high school students on the lack of diversity in engineering — to unpack why it exists and what we can do as individuals and as groups to change the field.
Why does DEI matter in STEM?
There are countless examples of flawed technologies and products that do not serve entire groups of people because they weren’t developed by diverse groups or with equity in mind. In drug design — which is what I do — diversity is critical. If you want to design treatments that will benefit the broadest array of individuals, those treatments need to be developed by, with and for diverse populations. Even today I come across clinical drug trials that include only men, which is incredibly frustrating.
For these reasons, engineering students should absolutely take DEI courses like PEERs. Engineering education needs to focus on the technical, but understanding engineering in a broader social context — its history of bias and its potential for change — is just as critical.
Originally published November 15, 2021