Developing Diverse Engineering Leaders for Future Workforce

Workplace diversity improves business' need to serve a broad customer base and spurs innovation. Classroom diversity prepares students for both.

Andrea Ogilvie and Tricia Berry

Andrea Ogilvie and Tricia Berry with students in the EOE and WEP programs

Students from traditionally under-represented groups make up roughly 18 percent of the undergraduate student body at the Cockrell School, according to Andrea Ogilvie, P.E., director of the school’s Equal Opportunity in Engineering Program. In fact, The University of Texas at Austin ranks third in the nation in awarding undergraduate engineering degrees to minority groups.

The EOE program, originally created in 1970 to help recruit African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students, continues to serve groups historically under-represented in the engineering field. It also supports students from Texas with backgrounds or experiences that contribute to the overall diversity of the Cockrell School, Ogilvie says, as well as women.

“The Cockrell School runs about 22 percent female enrollment, while the national average is closer to about 20 percent,” says Tricia Berry, director of the Women in Engineering Program (WEP). Established in 1991, WEP, makes what Berry calls “a concerted effort” to recruit female students to the school and help them stay connected once here.

Ogilvie and Berry bring the perspective of personal experience to their work. Both graduated from the Cockrell School, Ogilvie in civil engineering, Berry in chemical engineering. Both worked in industry. That background, they say, also gives them a passion for achieving diversity in engineering.

EOE and WEP efforts fall into three areas, pre-college outreach and recruitment; retention and community building with current students; and leadership and professional development programs to help prepare students for the workforce.

Pre-college programs, which start as early as elementary school, seek to get young people interested in and excited about engineering and, ultimately, to enroll in the Cockrell School.  Programs for current students include first-year interest groups, undergraduate research, and mentoring programs. Leadership and career development programs prepare students to enter the workforce with basic interpersonal skills they’ll need to be effective engineers, able to solve problems from a global perspective.

The school’s reputation for outstanding diversity in its student body offers an additional advantage, attracting industry recruiters. “Companies recruit here first of all because we’re one of the nation’s top engineering programs,” says Ogilvie. “But they also come because we’re one of the top producers of diverse engineers.” Industry understands the need for and benefit of diversity in engineering, she adds. “Diverse perspectives can lead to better ideas and more effective solutions.”

The engineering industry wholeheartedly supports the school’s diversity programs, Berry agrees. But recruiting and retaining diverse populations presents challenges for both industry and academia.

One of those challenges is quality of education across the board, Ogilvie says. “A lot of young people have an interest in science and engineering, but it takes more than just an interest. We have a responsibility to make sure all students have access to quality K-12 education and resources to prepare them to succeed in this field if they choose it.

“For us, it’s about nurturing those with an interest in engineering, and easing the transition from high school to college. We connect students to programs and resources, such as undergraduate research and peer mentors, to make their college experience richer. Undergraduate research is a great way to engage students in our research community and enable them to work on projects that can shape the world we live in.”

All engineering students, Berry says, whatever their background, want to know that what they do will make a difference. “We help them understand that studying engineering here will put them in a position to do so.” 

The EOE Program and WEP also work collaboratively with industry partners, various engineering departments, alumni and students. “Recruiting excellent students, nurturing their interest, and preparing them for the next step in their careers involves critical partners and people at multiple levels,” Ogilvie says. “Everyone plays a role.” 

Play a role right now by making a gift to either Women in Engineering or Equal Opportunity in Engineering.