My students really responded to my teaching this semester.
I had great reviews and they really seemed to learn what I was hoping they would. Someone asked me whether they thought it was because I had become a mother since I last taught the class. I don't actually think so, although I admit to seeing the students in rather a different light this year. I think it's because I came back from maternity leave with renewed vigor - wanting to focus even more on those aspects of my work which I believe in and value.
I teach two classes, one compulsory first year class entitled Global Challenges in Engineering and one upper year elective, Critical theories of technological development. In both, students have to consider the social impacts of the engineering that they will be doing when they graduate. They learn (at different levels) how engineering fits within the global, social economic context. They also learn lessons from history.
But what must it be like to find out that engineering was (is) not always good for people? That during the Industrial Revolution, many great machines were developed, but many people suffered terribly in the factories. What must it be like to realise that in many ways, workers in factories in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are suffering the same grueling conditions today, so that we can buy cheap cars and phones?
Understanding where we went wrong, and admitting it, is the first phase of any therapy - of any attempt to improve, to lose an addiction, to mend, to heal.
Students in these units, especially the upper level one, must pass through a liminal space, often agonising over the details which contradict everything they have thought about their profession. And it's hard. But this year, my students passed through that gateway, and as I read their personal reflections, I saw that they were gradually opening their eyes, seeing the world in new ways, that they were questioning common sense and considering new ways and future practices which would be better for the earth, better for men and women of all clans.
One of the main reasons I started on my current trajectory - that of working to improve engineering education - was because of some early research I did on the topic of women in engineering.
I asked the question: ‘Why are there so few women in engineering?' Disturbingly, there are no more female students today than then. One student's voice remains with me today. The day after interviewing her for my study I heard a knock on my door:
"I was very interested in what you had to say yesterday and I came to thank you. I had no idea that I could be ‘myself' in my profession. I thought I had to become someone else or I wouldn't fit in. I really hadn't considered that I could bring some of who I am into my work and that that might be a good thing," she said.
Bringing myself into my work - my own reflections, my own values, doing things in ways which suit my talents and interests - not only helps us enjoy our studies and profession; as engineers, it helps us connect with our own humanity and that of others.
How can we engineer for others' needs and values when we don't even know what our own are? The young woman in my study had come up with something, which many researchers have since discovered is the key to many women enjoying engineering as a profession - that engineers need a connection to society. That engineering is for people.
It was the beginning of my determination to transform engineering education to be more inclusive of a broader range of values, that would not only attract to the profession a more diverse range of engineers, but would thereafter serve a more diverse population.
The units I teach aim to help engineers engage with the communities they serve, but in order to do so, they need to understand, first and foremost, their own views and beliefs. And finally, this year, almost 20 years after that knock on the door, I can say that I am beginning to know how to help them do that.