Creating inclusive engineering leaders

Posted: November 16, 2020

Lasting change starts from within, and the College of Engineering has converted those words into action.

Zoom class screenshot of inclusive leadership course
Prof. Lisa Abrams, top row second from left, leads an online discussion with students in the “Inclusive Leadership Practice for Emerging Professionals" course.

As part of its effort to build a more inclusive academic community and, eventually, a more equitable engineering workforce, the college offers a leadership course open to any undergraduate engineering student. Led by Professor Lisa Abrams of the Department of Engineering Education (EED), the one credit hour course, “Inclusive Leadership Practice for Emerging Professionals” (ENGR 4891) is designed to be interactive and highly relevant to immediate and future academic, professional and even social environments.

“Engineering employers are increasingly looking for new hires with a demonstrated ability to work with diverse teams,” explained Abrams, EED’s associate chair. “This often includes a focus on gender and gender equity, as well as race, religion, ability, sexual orientation, and other social identities. In a competitive job market, coursework in intercultural leadership and engagement gives students a significant advantage as they join teams and organizations prioritizing multiple forms of equity.”

Lisa Abrams

First offered in 2016, the course has evolved to include two separate sections—one for students who identify as male and one for those who identify as female. The reason for keeping the sections separate, Abrams said, is to build a community among the students and to provide a safe environment in which to ask questions and provide candid responses. Students broach topics such as race, gender, sexual identity, and ethnicity, as well as issues like privilege, microaggressions, and the concept of empathy. At the end of the semester, the groups combine to discuss various case studies and what they’ve learned throughout the course.

Because women and people of color have been historically marginalized in engineering, a sense of camaraderie among those groups is important. Organizations like Women in Engineering and the Minority Engineering Program help provide that sense of community, but experts say these institutions alone cannot change organizational climate.

“The second aspect is that in order to change the climate you need the majority group, which in this case is white men, to participate and engage and become allies for those marginalized groups,” said Adithya Jayakumar, an EED senior lecturer who works with Abrams on inclusivity research. 

Student feedback on the course has been overwhelmingly positive. Recent graduate Matt Brodsky described it as “life-changing.”

“I became significantly more self-aware and conscious of my actions in both professional and casual environments. I learned to effectively navigate through difficult interpersonal situations and to understand the value of empathy when engaging with others,” said Brodsky.

“One of the most important takeaways for me was the ability to be a leader for everyone, regardless of background. This class was by far the most invaluable and profound experience that I had during my time at Ohio State, and I am still applying the lessons Dr. Abrams taught in my life today.”

The inclusive leadership course has been so successful that Abrams and Jayakumar decided to expand its impact to even more students. In the fall of 2019, they piloted an inclusive leadership cohort for first-year engineering students.

“Predominantly the students who have taken the elective leadership course were juniors and seniors, and they were close to leaving the College of Engineering at that point,” said Jayakumar. “And so if we could have an impact on students as they are entering the college, then they have a better chance of influencing the culture for the remaining four or five years that they're on campus.”

Early data from the initial first-year cohort has been encouraging, and suggests that underrepresented students felt more included, valued and respected as members of their teams versus the general first-year student population. With COVID-19 restrictions limiting in-person interactions, instructors felt it was best to hold off on a second cohort until normal campus operations can resume.

“Hopefully we can continue next year and we will see that the results are similar or maybe we'll see where we need to make some improvements,” said Jayakumar. “Then I think based on those results we can have a concrete foundation to say we've shown that this works in first-year students. Now how do we implement this successfully so that everybody coming to the College of Engineering learns these skills?”

Additionally, Abrams and Jayakumar have shared their findings with other college faculty to help ensure the environment fostered in all engineering classrooms is welcoming. Over the last year, the team has attended faculty and staff meetings of every engineering department, sharing anonymous student survey responses and providing suggestions on how to effectively promote inclusivity in the classroom.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications |