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Leading the Way: A Conversation with Emily Allen

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Dr. Emily Allen, the new Dean of the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), brings a diverse set of experiences to her leadership role. Recognizing that each of us brings something to the table, she seeks out groups of people who have common goals and mutual respect for each other. Reflecting on the value of teamwork, she says, "I have always given that advice to all students-find people to work with, engineering is not a lone activity." Speaking on the theme of diversity, Allen champions diversity in all forms: "Diversity already exists in our engineering colleges. Diversity is not something we try to create, it is always there. People bring different ideas and perspectives when they come from different backgrounds-rich or poor, black, brown or white, gay or straight, male or female, able or differently-abled. They have encountered different social and physical barriers and perceive the problems to be solved in different ways. We will not be successful as a species in solving the problems we ourselves have created, if we do not engage people with a wide variety of life experiences. As educators, the issue is what you can do not only to tolerate diversity, but to celebrate it."

Finding Passion as an Engineering Educator

In early life, Allen worked at a ski resort, was a bus driver, and a welder. In reminiscing about her days as a welder, she recalls an experience that brought to light the disparities in educational experiences of people from under-represented communities: "A new employee was hired and assigned to work with me. She was from the nearby Papago reservation. I assigned her to measuring lengths of steel for me to fit-up in a jig and weld. I soon realized she had no experience with a tape measure, so I began to teach her how to use it. But then I realized further that she had no concept of measurement at all. It wasn't something useful on the reservation or for girls to learn. That was the first time I got a glimpse of the vast differences between the education of different kinds of people in this country, and the limitations that gap imposes in making a living." After a few years in community college, and at the University of Delaware, Allen went to Columbia University; she graduated with a B. S. with honors in Metallurgy and Materials Science. While working for Raychem Corporation in Menlo Park, CA, she began a Master's degree program at Stanford, where she earned an M.S. and Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering. While she was completing her thesis, she saw an ad for an assistant engineering professor for San Jose State University (SJSU): "I knew that this was the place for me, the place where I could make a difference as an educator."

In 1992, Allen joined SJSU's College of Engineering as an assistant professor. In 2001, she became chair of the Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering; she attained full professor status in 2003. From 2008 to 2013, she served as Associate Dean of SJSU's College of Engineering. During this time, Dr. Belle Wei, (former Dean of Engineering at SJSU, now Provost at CSU Chico and also another WEPAN Thought Leader) was Allen's mentor: "Belle gave me plenty of space to develop and to have my own initiatives to run with. From her, I learned the importance of reserving judgment, looking at all sides to an issue, and to consider what hidden cultural issues might be at play in a dispute."

Allen is also passionate about preparing the next generation of engineers. She oversaw SJSU's Project Lead the Way (PLTW) affiliate, a nationally recognized engineering program that provides high-quality K-12 engineering curricula for middle and high school students. Now at CSULA, she continues to provide opportunities for teacher professional development through a model of outreach that utilizes the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) curriculum, another K-12 program also geared at educating middle and high school students. On fostering interest among young girls to pursue careers in engineering, Allen recommends, "When working with K-12 women and girls, an important message I try to give is that you don't have to be a math whiz or an Einstein to excel at engineering. I have often noticed that women think they need to be the best at something in order to commit to it, whereas men come with the idea that if they're interested in something and reasonably adept, that's enough. The message should be that if you are willing to work hard, and strive for excellence, then you can make a difference as an engineer."

Including the LGBTQ Community

One aspect of inclusion and diversity is recognition of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) challenges within STEM. This was brought to the forefront by the recent publication of a controversial letter to the editor in the September 2013 issue of American Society for Engineering Education Prism magazine. The author's comments about LGBTQ people became a catalyst for universities, engineering departments, professional organizations, and individuals to share their feelings about the myths, non-welcoming, and non-inclusive language included in his letter. Allen seized this opportunity as a teaching moment; in her response to the letter, she expressed the importance of leading by example: "As an educator, especially in a public institution, it is my deepest responsibility to lead by example, and to help my students develop into citizen-engineers who understand that diversity and democracy go hand in hand. It is not our role to judge each other, but rather to learn from each other. That is how we can best prepare our engineering students to serve society and make the world a better place." View more discussion on the Prism letter.   

Allen's Recommendations for WEPAN Members, Advocates, and Supporters

While WEPAN and many women-in-engineering organizations have been successful in increasing the representation of women over time, it is clear that recruitment continues to be necessary in order to replenish the pipeline of women entering into engineering. Allen believes that the recruitment process is different for different institutions. For those highly-selective institutions, recruitment of young women may simply be a matter of will and resources. By contrast, those institutions that are often designated as minority-serving institutions -and considered less-selective-recruitment activities often involve doing significantly more outreach at the K-12 level and with parents within different ethnic communities. Motivated by a desire to help make engineering schools and engineering workplaces become more welcoming to women, LGBTQ, and other under-represented minority groups, Allen believes that our advocacy work must go beyond recruitment. We must all work together to make a shift in favor of a more inclusive culture -one that eliminates assumptions about who is in the classroom or by what journey that student arrived. If we do this, we will be able to achieve genuine and inclusive diversity.  

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