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Leading the Way: A Conversation with Norman Fortenberry

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By Cecilia Elmore and Beverly Louie
"The process is important because it does take a lot of persistence to become an engineer, but we need to let people know why that is important-the great problems of today's world are solved by engineers." Insightful words spoken by a man who was destined to become an engineer, and who is spending his life improving engineering education with the hopes of changing the face of engineering.
According to his mother, Norman Fortenberry was destined for a life in engineering. At the age of 2, when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he uttered the words, "in the ear," which of course meant, "engineer." Having lived in three countries and five American states, Norman has had first-hand experience of other the cultures and societies. Upon graduation from MIT, he started his professional career as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Florida A&M and Florida State University (which had a joint engineering program at the time). Like many others starting out in academia, it bothered him that he and other recent PhD grads received little training to prepare them for a career in engineering education.
Norman's thirst to learn more about engineering education prompted him to volunteer as campus assistant director of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-sponsored Southeastern University and College Coalition for Engineering Education; it was through this effort that he found a network of like-minded individuals and attracted the attention of NSF. An invitation to spend a year or two at NSF led to an 11-year stint, where he served as a program officer, a division director, and an advisor to the Assistant Director of NSF for Education and Human Resources. Through his work with NSF, Norman developed his engineering education passion at the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), where he was the founding director of the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship in Engineering Education (CASEE). In 2010, he became the Executive Director for the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE).

Early Awareness of the Need for Inclusion

During his high school years in Missouri and Louisiana, Norman recognized that he was one among few people of color on the college prep track. Although he felt somewhat isolated, he seemed to get along with most of his peers. When he entered college, he found that students from large urban areas also felt isolated. Some of the disparities he noticed included not being able to integrate into study groups that were necessary for success; this was an eye opener for him. "One starts to think about what does this mean for others, and how does one get access to opportunity and broaden access to opportunity for those around you? What are the systemic factors that can keep one out or delay opportunity, and then delayed opportunity is often characterized as lack of merit, and what does merit really mean?" Norman reflects, "You begin to see that these things play out not only in the context of ethnicity or race, but gender and cultural background as well. You see that you feel compelled to do something about it, which is how I got involved in those issues as a student, and what led to my serving as executive director of GEM. As a former GEM fellow, I saw an opportunity to give back."
GEM is the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, Inc., focusing on providing graduate fellowships for building STEM talent. Norman reported that a large proportion of GEM fellows are women and that they benefit from the many resources GEM offers, particularly in inspiring more women to transition into an academic career. While he was a staffer at NAE, Fortenberry led a major project which involved partnering with professional societies to build stronger pathways for girls and women to enter and succeed in engineering programs.

Engineering Education Advocate

Across the nation, the increasing momentum by which engineering education was being promoted, encouraged Norman's own strengths and interests. "There was a confluence of events around 2002 when people were beginning to see the long-term impacts of the coalitions and the schools of engineering education; some of these earlier partnerships were formed at Virginia Tech and Purdue." Additionally, Norman acknowledged that a multitude of important reports from NSF, NRC, NAE, and other organizations came out around that same time; "these led to the awareness that we could bring the same rigorous and innovative approach to technical engineering research" to the study of engineering education. Although he met with some resistance in the beginning from NAE members and other scholars, who questioned whether educational research could be considered "real" research, Norman now feels there is less resistance due to CASEE's continued efforts for "bringing the community together to think about these ideas."

Women in STEM Focus

The NAE has been effective in focusing on building inclusion in its work with initiatives such as Changing the Conversation and the Engineering Grand Challenges. Norman says both these initiatives have helped the engineering community think about how best to communicate the joys and challenges of engineering. For example, doctors and lawyers have long "framed" their professions as saving lives and advocating for social justice, even though the actual pathway to these careers may involve many long and unexciting hours of training and education. Because the "helping professions" have general appeal to women, the number of women in the ranks of medicine and law have increased. By contrast, engineering has historically not been portrayed as a career that benefits people. It is obvious that the traditional public message of what it takes to be an engineer - being good at math and science and enjoying problem sets and homework - is unattractive to students. Like the fields of medicine and law, Norman says, "We've got to focus not so much on the process of becoming an engineer, but the goals." The process is important because it does take a lot of persistence to become an engineer, but we need to let people know why that is important-the great problems of today's world are solved by engineers.
Norman notes that the engineering profession is a humanistic discipline; therefore, it should be more appealing to women and underrepresented minorities who in general have a strong sense of community and want to give back. He says, "We have to win the PR battle" and build on the momentum established by the NAE initiatives.
There are ongoing issues that need to be resolved that will have an impact towards improving the representation of women in STEM fields. Norman believes we must engage department chairs and deans of STEM programs even more than has been done in the past in order to promote the "change" we want, especially in the academic reward system. "We have to find some (other) way that allows people to see how they can continue to excel or be perceived as being at the top of their peer group." Norman also says, "For administrators on behalf of their administrative units, we must operate in a different way. It is going to take somebody establishing an "existence proof" that another model for academia can work. Then the opinion leaders will be challenged to do it better-because they are the leaders." This different way of operating-one that rewards and recognizes flexibility-will lead towards resolution of issues, such as work-life balance, child care, and parental care.
While some schools are making strides at increasing the representation of women at the undergraduate level, the representation at the graduate level remains stubbornly low and is a bigger challenge to overcome. Norman believes that increased messaging, combined with administrative changes and scholarly work, can help change the mindset to one that promotes a balanced career that blends both good research and good teaching. Those who are interested in an academic career should not be turned away by traditional expectations.

A New Orchestra

One of the toughest challenges Norman identified in his role as the Executive Director for ASEE is being able to broaden and redefine the boundaries of engineering, for both research and practice. For instance, the medical profession is comprised of many professionals, ranging from laboratory technicians to nurses to medical doctors. Engineering should be thought of as an integrated set of professions in an analogous way, such that the range of engineering professionals would comprise technicians, technologists, and practicing engineers, as well as doctorate-level engineers in academia. Like part of the same orchestra, each professional in the engineering continuum contributes to the overall profession. Once this relationship is recognized, Norman believes that more integrative thinkers-predominantly among them women and minorities-will be attracted to the profession.
This "orchestra" approach should be considered for engineering college departments, too. Norman pushes us to consider that the expectation should not be that all faculty are good at everything, but rather, the message should be that individuals focus on their specific strengths in order to excel. These contribute to a strong engineering department that is broad and deep in many areas, while alleviating the "pace and pressure" on our faculty to do everything. This approach helps move the conversation to include the recognition that scholarly work contributes to the quality of teaching.

Leveraging Our Collaborative Strengths

WEPAN and ASEE can work together to document the strategies that build inclusion, thereby highlighting them. Norman maintains the importance of breaking down stereotypes. "We must work to eliminate all the traditional reasons that have been used until all the reasons are nullified. There is great value in trying to achieve change. You must appeal to people where they are, and lead them to where we want to go." Our collective belief should be that everyone can be enlightened. Some people will reach a new awareness when someone close to them is not given opportunities solely based on demographics. We need to find each person's personal soft spot to "make it real for them" and use their new awareness to carry on our work in building inclusion for those who are underrepresented in the STEM fields.

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