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Author: Ron Dempsey
A workforce with technological knowledge and expertise is vital to the continued growth of the US economy. Given the importance of the technological workforce to modern society’s economic growth and sustainability, the acquisition of technological knowledge and expertise should provide a pathway to upward mobility for all—and there are some indications that it does:
The exception, however, has been the experience of people of color, especially African Americans, who are disproportionately underrepresented in the field of engineering. The problem exists not so much for the African Americans who do gain access to the field as in the comparatively small number who do.
My research examines the role of engineering technology (ET) education in an engineering career, possible mechanisms that maintain racial exclusion from engineering, and whether engineering technology is a pathway or gatekeeper for African Americans into the field of engineering. My findings suggest that engineering technology provides a pathway to engineering for African Americans, but not without obstacles.
Crucial as engineering is to economic growth and innovative competitiveness in the global economy, it must become more diversified. Evidence shows that “businesses and other organizations see a significant return on their investment when diversity is achieved” (Bordonaro et al. 2000, p. 12). More generally, research indicates that “a society’s exposure to cultural diffusion, which leads to greater cultural heterogeneity through the introduction of external cultural influences, played a significant role in the promotion of innovation and technological creativity throughout its history” (Ashraf and Galor 2011, p. 75).
Yet historically, engineering has not embraced diversity, which suggests that its impact on economic growth and innovative competitiveness has been hampered. One study reports that the underrepresentation of minority groups in science and engineering fields affects the economic ability of the United States to be globally competitive (Leggon and McNeely 2012). There is even evidence that its impact is actually negatively affected by the “social destabilizing effect of cultural polarization” (Ager and Brückner 2013, p. 96).
Exclusive Engineering Culture
Government reports (e.g., Bordonaro et al. 2000, p. 1) have consistently implored the United States
to cultivate the scientific and technical talents of all its citizens, not just those from groups that have traditionally worked in SET (science, engineering, technology) fields. Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities currently constitute more than two thirds of the US workforce. But just when the US economy requires more SET workers, the largest pool of potential workers continues to be isolated from SET careers.
If engineering is vital to the nation’s economic health and engineers have higher salaries and occupational prestige, why are African Americans not pursuing engineering as a pathway to economic success and increased quality of life? Although African Americans have been successful in using higher education for upward mobility (Kozol 2005), they still represent a small share of bachelor’s degree recipients in engineering (NSF 2013).
I posit that (1) African Americans are stymied in their pursuit of an engineering degree by structural obstacles such as educational pedagogy/methods, mathematical expectations, cost, and scheduling, and (2) they find that an ET program reduces those obstacles. Nonetheless, although engineering technology can provide an alternative pathway to a career as an engineer, obstacles still exist for those with ET degrees. For example, ET degrees are considered inferior to engineering degrees.
Dual Pathways to an Engineering Degree?
In 1955 the American Society for Engineering Education’s Grinter Report on US engineering education recommended a single pathway to an engineering degree that included increased requirements in science and mathematics courses as well as a move away from applied engineering to theoretical engineering (ASEE 1955). But the report ignored the committee’s original recommendation (ASEE 1953), which called for dual pathways to an engineering degree: a scientific/theoretical path and a practical/applied path.
In earlier discussions (ASEE 1951), members had reasoned that only a select number of engineering schools needed to offer the “professional-scientific” degree program and that the “professional-general” program would provide the necessary education required for engineers in industry. In rejecting the “professional-general” pathway, the ASEE leaders created a vacuum in engineering education. Engineering technology filled that vacuum and satisfied the committee’s intent for a practical/applied/general educational pathway into engineering. It is not, however, a parallel and equal pathway into engineering.
The Stratification of Engineering
In this article I review findings from my dissertation research (not yet published), which used a three-tiered, stratified structure as the conceptual framework of the field of engineering. The three tiers are represented by those with 4-year engineering degrees, those with 4-year engineering technology degrees, and those with 2-year ET degrees (who typically work as technicians and laborers). Postgraduate employment access for each tier is based on criteria such as degree completion, licensing, accreditation standards, discipline choice. These criteria are determined by groups such as accrediting bodies, university engineering programs, and state licensing agencies.
The tiered structure of engineering emerged from the formation of the technical institutions in the United States. The three tiers were articulated in 1959 by Henninger (pp. 27–28), who recommended that, to supply adequate personnel
[for] the three-part engineering-scientific team, we shall require a three-part educational program: (1) The university-collegiate program for engineers and scientists, (2) the technical institute program for the engineering and scientific technicians, and (3) the vocational-trade programs for the craftsmen and apprenticeship.
The second tier became engineering technology and remains an understudied area of the field of engineering, but its impact on the three-tiered structure of engineering is significant. The new NAE report on US engineering technology education (Frase et al. 2017, pp. 106–107) estimates that ET graduates working as engineering technologists and technicians make up 17 percent of the engineering workforce. The report also notes that many ET graduates work under the title of engineer, so the percentage could be higher (pp. 126, 127, 134).
African Americans have found it difficult to establish proportional numbers in science and engineering careers compared to their White American counterparts, especially White males. Research on underrepresented minorities in STEM fields sheds light on the mechanisms behind this discrepancy (e.g., Hurtado et al. 2009; Kaba 2013).
Limited educational resources at the secondary level (Denson et al. 2010; Moore et al. 2003) impede some Black (and other minority) students in their mathematical and scientific intellectual development and thus put them at a disadvantage in terms of both being accepted into engineering programs and, if accepted, successfully completing them (Slaton 2010).
Preparation in mathematics is key to success in engineering (Denson et al. 2010; Moore 2005; Pearson and Miller 2012). Lack of such preparation, coupled with low expectations among teachers and counselors about Black students’ academic abilities, leads to lower standardized test scores as well as lower participation rates in advanced scientific courses than their White and Asian counterparts (Maton et al. 2012). In addition, there is evidence that mathematics and other engineering concepts taught through abstract pedagogies may not be conducive to the learning styles of some Black students (McDougal 2009; NACME 2011b; Tsui 2007).
Black students face isolation in engineering programs because of the lack of peers and role models (Beasley and Fischer 2012; Maton et al. 2012). And, in part because of their token levels of representation, many face blatant discrimination from professors who hold stereotypical attitudes and expectations that Black students will fail or simply don’t “belong” in engineering (Carlone and Johnson 2007; McGhee and Martin 2011; Varma et al. 2006).
No research has been published on the relationships between African Americans and ET studies or careers, but enrollment and graduation data point to a positive relationship. ASEE data indicate that, in terms of their representation in the general population, African Americans are significantly underrepresented in engineering but more proportionally represented in engineering technology (table 1). The National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering reports that African Americans account for 10.7 percent of the total US workforce but only 2.5 percent of engineering managers and 4.5 percent of engineers (including individuals with an ET degree who are hired as engineers). In contrast, they account for 7.0 percent of engineering technicians (NACME 2011a).
My research explores the following questions:
Combining quantitative and qualitative methods, my research draws on graduation data from the national Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) dataset, state licensing criteria and requirements for the Principles and Practices in Engineering (PE) exam, and surveys and semistructured interviews of ET alumni from two institutions that are among the top 10 producers of ET graduates in the United States.1
I used IPEDS data2 to examine and compare the percentages of African Americans who graduated from engineering and ET programs. This national dataset yields a comprehensive picture of the racially stratified field of engineering in the United States.
The data are analyzed at the national, state, and institutional levels using both the Pearson Chi-square Test of Independence and percentage tables.
The IPEDS graduation data show that Black students graduate at a much higher rate from engineering technology programs than from engineering programs. In 2014 they accounted for nearly 11 percent of ET degrees (Frase et al. 2017, p. 60); in contrast, they earned less than 4 percent of engineering degrees—less than half the rates of Asians, Hispanics, and nonresident aliens.
A similar pattern emerges at the institutional level. The chi-square test showed the same strong evidence of differences between Black and Asian students at US institutions (N=128) that offered both engineering and ET degrees.
At the state level, the IPEDS data reveal that 29 of 37 states had much higher rates of Black students who graduated from 4-year ET programs than from 4-year engineering programs.3 In the other 8 states Black students graduated at a higher rate from ET programs as opposed to engineering programs but at a less significant percentage.
Survey and Semistructured Interviews
I focus here on three questions from the survey and semistructured interviews:
Analysis of the responses is summarized below.4
(1) Why did you choose an engineering technology program over an engineering program?
The primary reason given for choosing engineering technology was the hands-on, applied pedagogy of the program. In addition to laboratory time, many ET programs embed advanced mathematics in a particular course where the engineering concept calls for it.
Other reasons for choosing engineering technology were related to access. Many ET graduates worked while they attended college and found that, compared to engineering programs, engineering technology offered more flexibility and an orientation toward adult learners. They mentioned both the flexibility of taking courses in the afternoon or at night and the costs—ET programs were offered at institutions where tuition was less than at those offering strictly engineering programs.
African American respondents in particular cited these practical reasons for choosing engineering technology (cost, flexibility, and hands-on, applied learning). They said they worked either part-time or full-time while pursuing their ET degree, and they voiced a perception that most Black students need to work while obtaining their degree and therefore look for options that are less expensive and allow them to work during the day and attend class in the evening. As one African American noted, “I think that engineering technology schools tend to see themselves as needing to serve that after-hours crowd.”
In addition, most of the African American respondents felt that their learning styles were better served by a more applied, experiential pedagogy. The lecture/lab instruction in the ET programs allows students to make concrete applications in the lab of the abstract concepts presented in the lecture.
Previous research (Denson et al. 2010; Moore et al. 2003) suggests that many Black students lack adequate mathematical preparation in high school. All ABET-accredited ET programs require students to take up to Calculus II, normally through standard mathematics courses, but many ET courses embed advanced mathematics, connecting the engineering concepts with the required mathematics. Such embedding helps students who are more experiential learners apply the necessary mathematics to the concepts they are studying.
(2) Have you been hindered or encountered obstacles in your career because you graduated with an engineering technology degree?
Most of the respondents reported that graduates of engineering technology programs are hired as engineers, and the large majority of African American respondents said that their ET degree has not hindered them in their careers. Observations were based on personal experience, experience in hiring at companies, and interaction with engineering colleagues during their careers. A substantial number of the respondents said that they had never even encountered the position of engineering technologist in their careers.
Respondents mentioned that their ET degree came up when applying for a position or during the interview process—they had to explain what the degree program entailed or describe work done in previous positions. Several respondents added, however, that once they explained the hands-on experiential learning they received with their ET degree, the employer actually preferred them. One study interviewee said, “I’m in marketing now, and the guys I work with today in the shops and services, they favor the technology degree more than they do the engineering degree.”
Respondents noted, however, that obstacles do exist at the state and federal levels as well as in corporations and individuals. At the state level, more than half do not allow ET degree holders to take the professional engineering (PE) exam. Only 22 states allow a graduate with an ABET-accredited ET bachelor’s degree to sit for the PE exam, and they all require 5–8 years of work-related engineering experience, whereas the standard for graduates with an ABET-accredited engineering bachelor’s degree is 4 years.
At the federal level, the Office of Personnel Management oversees the recruiting of individuals for federal jobs and sets policy for hiring. The policy for engineers who work for the federal government (GS-0800) states that the basic requirement is a bachelor’s degree in engineering from an ABET-accredited program. By omitting engineering technology from this qualification standard, the federal government, as a legal and authoritative national entity, delegitimizes it as a qualified degree program.
At the corporate and individual levels, obstacles include unequal job titles (and likely corresponding pay scales) and prejudice from individuals with engineering degrees. In the words of one survey respondent, “I’ve held engineer positions in my career stints, however there is considerable resentment from the engineering school graduates when they find out about engineering technologist graduates working as engineers. [They] make it impossible to succeed as an engineer under their management and direction.”
(3) What is the future of engineering technology?
The majority of the respondents were positive about engineering technology’s future, although they qualified that outlook with suggestions for the creation of equally recognized dual tracks in the field of engineering or the need to focus on applied fields. A minority believed that engineering technology was obsolete, would eventually merge with engineering, or would remain subordinate to engineering.
Almost all the respondents believe that engineering technology’s inability to distinguish itself from engineering is a major hindrance to its development, and that a clear distinction between the two programs would benefit both engineering technology and the field of engineering, especially in the area of diversity. They specifically stressed the need for equality: The programs should operate as two equal options in the field of engineering—a more scientific/theoretical option and a more applied/practical option.
Scholars, activists, corporate leaders, and government officials have sought multiple means to increase the number of African Americans in engineering.5 Unfortunately, these attempts have not significantly increased the percentage of African Americans in engineering degree programs or the field of engineering.
The data reviewed in this article demonstrate that a significantly higher percentage of Black students enroll in and graduate from engineering technology degree programs than engineering programs. My study findings show that engineering technology is a viable pathway to a career as an engineer, although regulatory and reputational obstacles sometimes keep ET graduates from acceptance as full-fledged engineers by their engineering-degreed peers.
Maybe it is time to revisit the original recommendation of the Grinter Report and develop a dual-track engineering education. The advantages of such an approach include accommodation of multiple learning styles (applied versus theoretical, abstract versus embedded mathematics), an educational system that is more correctly aligned with industry, a flattening of the engineering hierarchy, and, most importantly, a legitimized and equal pathway into engineering that better aligns with the life experiences of African Americans.
I would like to acknowledge Cameron Fletcher for her very helpful editing of this article.
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1The two institutions are Purdue University and Southern Polytechnic State University (GA) (now Kennesaw State). The study received approval from the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Institutional Review Board to conduct surveys and semistructured interviews (IRB Protocol 14261).
2 The IPEDS data were retrieved from the Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, at http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter/datafiles.aspx.
3 Thirteen states were not included because they had fewer than 10 Black students graduate from any engineering/engineering technology program.
4 The survey and demographic data are available on request.
5 The most recent summary of such opportunities is in Slaughter et al. (2015).