Professor leads movement to create social justice in engineering

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Professor Don Winiecki extended his hand, offering his business card. The card, like any, listed his title and contact information tucked beneath the Boise State University logo. Overlaying his professional details, however, was something uncommon to most other business cards–Braille.

The little, raised surfaces are emblematic of Winiecki’s title listed on the card, professor of ethics and morality in professional practice. This position allows him to work with matters of diversity and inclusion in engineering. Winiecki is striving towards social justice in terms of race, gender and, as symbolized by his use of Braille, disabilities.

“I want to not just have inclusion and diversity having to do with sex, national origin, race and age, but also make our curriculum more accessible to people with sensory deficits,” Winiecki said.

To aid in this, Winiecki, along with a team of professors from across disciplines, was awarded a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to revolutionize engineering departments. Though the grant will respond to other industry needs as well, ethics is one of the major aspects being addressed.

“By the time I retire, I want to have a department or program housed in engineering that employs a couple of experts in science, technology, society and in technology ethics to make sure our students are not only very good at the technical skills, but are also socially aware and responsible and in a sense, kind of activists in engineering,” Winiecki said.

History of exclusivity in engineering

No one, according to Winiecki, intended to keep certain groups out of engineering, but the pairing of historical and societal norms led to a lack of diversity in the field today. Socioeconomic disparities between races, for example, have kept certain groups from pursuing engineering as a profession.

“We have an economic disparity that has grown up with the way that America has grown up,” Winiecki said. “We see it as the way it is, and I like to argue that it’s not, in the first place, ‘the way it is,’ but it’s the way we’ve allowed it to become by not thinking about the issue.”

Beyond socioeconomic disparities, social norms have contributed to the shortage of diversity in the field. According to Winiecki, family expectations and gender roles can discourage women from becoming engineers or other STEM professionals.

“There are things that happen in families that assign specific roles and what a woman or a man should be doing,” Winiecki said. “Kids are taught to be satisfied or go in certain directions by the values they’re raised with. Social forces are amazingly powerful–they can push people against their own personal values.”

Those social forces, in Winiecki’s opinion, factor into the exclusivity of engineering and allow for a male-dominated field apprehensive to the inclusion of other sexes or groups.

“We ended up informally reinforcing these kinds of biases–the field grew up that way. Nobody wanted it to be aggressively against women, (but) we allowed it to be that way,” Winiecki said.

What ethics in engineering look like

Winiecki is aiming to embrace differences, rather than shy away from them. People of different backgrounds, according to Winiecki, offer different skillsets and points of view, which can lead to better outcomes.

“If we had more women, blacks, hispanics, blind people and deaf people (in engineering), then we would see computing systems and technologies developed that accommodate and include those people and their unique offerings,” Winiecki said.

The end goal for Winiecki’s dedication to ethics would be an opening up of the field to people of different backgrounds. Doing this would not only diversify the field, but also create better products that better serve their users.

Don Winiecki (above), a professor at Boise State, is spearheading a movement to involve more ethics in engineering. Photo by Axel Quartarone.

James Ferguson, associate professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Boise State, noted that by adding more unique perspectives to a problem, better solutions are reached.

“Perhaps the best solutions come from more diverse teams,” Ferguson said. “That’s what we’re after. Diversity and inclusion is the right thing to do because it produces the best product and the best outcome.”

Not only are ethics represented by creating social justice within the field, but also by eliminating things such as algorithmic biases in computing systems. Algorithmic bias is discrimination programmed into systems, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by societal factors.

“Effectively, what can happen is a system can replicate (societal) biases,” said Michael Ekstrand, assistant professor of computer science. “Very rarely is it that someone set up the program with bias, and it’s not necessarily that it’s innate in the technology, but it is a natural and extremely common result of combining the technology with the human behavior that it’s designed to interact with.”

This bias can be found anywhere from bail-setting software to book and movie recommendations, which can discriminate against certain populations. Both Ekstrand and Winiecki have dedicated time to researching the issue. Winiecki hopes to determine how machines are biased towards people, then reach into society and fix the problems that caused those biases.

The path to ethical engineering

At present, the ethics taught in engineering are snuck into classes, due to curricula being packed with other content. Very few classes on ethics are being taught, though the first five-week course on foundational values just wrapped up, and a mechanical engineering senior design class will see a shadow curriculum next semester.

With the grant from the NSF, Winiecki will begin infusing inclusion, diversity and social justice into the engineering curriculum. To do this, more experts on the subject must be hired as professors. Winiecki is Boise State’s resident ethical engineering expert, but cannot do all course instruction on his own.

Ten years from now, Winiecki hopes to see morality and ethics become innate parts of engineering at Boise State, as does Ekstrand.

“My dream would be that we’re discussing the ethical impacts of technology in all of our data science classes,” Ekstrand said. “I would love for us to have discussions of ethics, basically so that you can’t get away from it. You’re always thinking about what can go wrong and how could this be misused, and how we make it misuse resistant.”

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About Author

Jordan is the product of several generations of impassioned travelers, foodies, animal lovers, go-getters, joke-tellers and goofballs. She believes in the power of living a life of exploration, a mindset which was developed after spending time in the Middle East and Northern Africa. She is a third year student at Boise State, and is studying Journalism and International Relations. By doing this, she hopes to help facilitate an understanding of and communication between different global cultures and societies. As this year’s News Editor, she plans to bring new levels of integrity and impartial reporting to the Arbiter.

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