My plan to address systemic racism in STEM and my academic units

Kyle Niemeyer
Jun 17 · 7 min read

Though I began writing this on June 10, it took me a few days to finish it completely. Feedback is welcome, both positive and negative.

Credit: #ShutDownSTEM

Last week, I wrote about my response to, and recognition of, the systemic racism that Black people face in America, exhibited most obviously—and most abhorrently—via police violence. In addition to dealing with these issues in their day-to-day lives, Black researchers in STEM and academia also face structural racism in their careers.

On June 10, many non-Black academics around the US participated in #ShutDownAcademia/#ShutdownSTEM/#Strike4BlackLives: a day to educate ourselves on the issues facing our Black colleagues, and plan our action to address these issues. I also participated in this, and while such action will take much longer than one day, I wanted to share the actions that I am committing to take, both within my school/college and at an individual/research group level.

I want to acknowledge and thank the original organizers of Particles for Justice and the Strike for Black Lives, Brian Nord and Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, along with Brittany Kamai and the #ShutdownSTEM team, for calling us to action.

I also want to acknowledge Prof. Bryony DuPont, who led efforts to come up with many of the specific plans for the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering and College of Engineering that follow. I also want to thank a group of Mechanical Engineering graduate students who reached out to us asking what actions we, and the rest of the faculty and staff, are taking.

The problem

STEM is systemically racist. Oregon State is especially so, due both to our location in Oregon (which was founded as a white utopia) but also because of our culture.

Diversity efforts in engineering have focused mostly on involving international students and white women faculty, which are not minority groups. While we have made progress with the latter—Dean Scott Ashford won an award in 2019 for hiring women in faculty roles—by the end of the summer, there will be no Black faculty in the College of Engineering.

That is an incredible, and awful, statement.

There are also few Black engineering students in the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering and College of Engineering. Some may paint this as a pathway problem (aka “pipeline” problem, but this term is problematic), but we should more accurately recognize it as a culture issue. Even if we were to do better outreach and increase K–12 interest in engineering among Black students—which, to be clear, we should do—our current culture at Oregon State would not adequately support these students. So, we need to take action to fix the culture in our academic units.

Planned actions in the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering

As a tenured Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering (as of September 2020), I will be in a privileged position to take action within my School, the College, and also my research group.

  1. I help run the ME graduate seminars in the fall and winter terms, along with Bryony DuPont and Brian Fronk. We designed these to teach new graduate students the skills they need to be successful, based largely on Bryony’s prior work. This fall, we will give a seminar on anti-racism. We will discuss the history of racism in engineering, and Oregon in particular, building on OPB’s article and the work of Walidah Imarisha. The seminar will discuss specific anti-racist actions and practices; for example: what we can say in certain situations when confonted with racism (as an active learning exercise). We will also ideate ways of making labs/research groups and graduate student groups more inclusive.
  2. Next, within MIME, we will propose to our new School Head to require a one-page equity, diversity, and inclusion statement as part of our annual faculty performance reviews. This recommendation will include suggested prompts and resources to share with faculty.
  3. To provide resources to faculty who have not yet educated themselves on these issues, we will ask to take over an MIME faculty meeting in the fall to discuss anti-racism, work with the faculty on confronting their own racial biases, and provide resources for continuing education.
  4. We will also ask that the Associate School Head for Graduate Programs require a discussion of equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts and issues in the graduate student annual progress reports. Furthermore, we want to revise teaching assistant ethics training to include more content on racism awareness and strategies for confronting racism in the classroom.
  5. One source of racial disparity is in graduate admissions. We plan to encourage more collaborative and holistic graduate admissions, starting at the Mechanical Engineering level, with identification of and support for Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students. The goal of these changes will be to remove how much individual faculty decisions play a role in hiring.
  6. Related, we will push to eliminate the requirement for—or even use of—the GRE for graduate admissions to the Mechanical Engineering program. The GREs do not predict success in graduate school, or beyond. For example, in astronomy, the winners of a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship reported Physics GRE scores running the entire range, and scores do not correlate to number of first-author peer-reviewed publications. Instead, we can use in-depth evaluations by experienced researchers, given via letters of recommendation—though these can also exhibit bias in terms of both race and gender.
  7. We will visit minority-serving institutions and present research opportunities for pursuing graduate school in Mechanical Engineering, and more broadly in the School of MIME, in an attempt to actively recruit new students.
  8. Finally, we will work to integrate social issues, including systemic racism in STEM, into our engineering courses. I will discuss later how I plan to do this in my own courses, but we will initiate conversations and share resources with our colleagues on doing this. Changes can range from incorporating additional topics to adding course learning outcomes.

Plans for my research group and teaching

The planned collaborative actions above are at the level of the School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering (i.e., our department) and College of Engineering. I also plan to take actions in my own research group and classes.

I currently teach courses on numerical methods for mechanical engineering, gas dynamics, software development, and thermodynamics. Although many in STEM stick their heads in the sand by claiming these topics are “objective”—as I have in the past—there are many ways to incorporate racial and social justice issues. For example, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been diving into the work of Prof. Donna Riley, specifically Engineering Thermodynamics and 21st Century Energy Problems: A Textbook Companion for Student Engagement and Engineering and Social Justice.

Though I’ve just begun, in the last week of my graduate thermodynamics class, rather than pretending all was normal, I addressed what has been happening in our country, and then gave a brief presentation on social justice and thermodynamics. I addressed the connections between the topics of the course and social issues (e.g., chemical equilibrium and lead in drinking water, the First Law of thermodynamics and energy use, the Second Law vs. perpetual growth and natural resource extraction). I also pointed out that there are numerous non-white-male contributions to thermodynamics throughout history, despite the focus of most textbooks.

Of course, simply giving a one-off lecture on these topics will not really fix anything. I plan to incorporate these issues and topics into all my courses, by simultaneously reducing the overrepresentation of white Western examples and names, and highlighting the contributions of BIPOC researchers and scholars.

In my research activities, I will be more proactive in collaborating with Black scholars, and use my position to invite colleagues to present, keynote, and/or speak at conferences. I will also ensure that I am citing Black researchers in my work.

In my research group, I will work to provide space, unique support, and culturally relevant/responsive resources. Our spaces need to be welcoming and inclusive, and I will continue promoting engagement among the students in my group. I also commit to supporting group members’ individual passions and interests beyond our specific research topics.

In addition, I will work with my group members to come up with more equitable ways of selecting future students. Right now, this is generally based on students reaching out to me via email, and me noticing someone’s message in particular, and then scheduling an interview. This tends to select for certain personality types—plus, my own implicit biases could impact the process—and as a result I may miss excellent candidates. Some possible solutions include adding more instructions on the group website on applying, and including feedback from all group members in this process. We will continue working on solutions to these issues.

(I want to acknowledge the Twitter threads by Profs. Christine Le and Blake Richards that inspired some of this.)

All of this work is overdue, and there is still a lot for me to figure out. But I have no excuses for inaction. I welcome any feedback on these plans, either positive or negative.

My reading list

Here are some of the articles and books I’ve read, started reading, or plan to read soon:

What I plan to read, as soon as I can find physical copies to buy:

NRG Excitations

Blog posts, news, and stories from the Niemeyer Research…

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