Sue Kemnitzer: Broadening participation in engineering

Photo of Sue KemnitzerSue Kemnitzer has served as Deputy Director of the Division of Engineering Education and Centers of the National Science Foundation since 1990. Previously, she was Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior and Budget Examiner at the Office of Management and Budget. She has focused on supporting research on how students learn engineering and on broadening participation in engineering fields.

The profile below was authored by Cheryl Allendoerfer, University of Washington, based on an interview with Dr. Kemnitzer in 2014.

Dr. Sue Kemnitzer
Deputy Division Director of Engineering and Centers
National Science Foundation

M.S., Science, Technology & International Affairs, George Washington University
B.S., Psychology/Physiology/Golf; UCLA, 1970

Supporting Diversity from a National Platform

It all started with my interest in broadening participation in engineering. In the 1970s, I worked with Betty Vetter, who was a real pioneer in terms of gathering statistics on degrees awarded in engineering and employment of engineers, and analyzing them by race, ethnicity, and gender. This was quite an effort, because the federal government didn’t really publish this information at the time, but she was very persistent, and she got them to develop databases that we still use today. Using this data, Betty and I co-authored the first three issues of the Science and Engineering Indicators report of the National Science Board.

Then, in the 1980s, Congress passed a law to establish a commission to look at how we could encourage more women, minorities, and people with disabilities to enter science and engineering careers, and I was picked to be the executive director of that commission, the Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Technology. We were charged by Congress to issue a report, and we decided to have public hearings across the country to elicit the issues from different populations and geographic regions. Several representatives of high-tech companies came to those hearings, because they were way ahead of the universities in terms of valuing diversity among their employees. That really got me more interested in the engineering part, because the companies were mostly seeking engineers. I think the combination of all those events was my original motivation. We issued two reports, including Changing America: The New Face of Science and Engineering, which got a lot of traction.

The person who became the next director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Eric Bloch, came from IBM, and he was very knowledgeable about the issue of diversity. He knew about the reports, and he asked me to come and start programs at NSF that would carry forth the recommendations of those reports. In particular, the recommendations in the engineering area called for certain efforts to attract, support, and sustain women, underrepresented minorities, and people with disabilities.

I have been able to do what I’ve done through hard work and by picking the right way to convey messages to influential people. Not everyone moved as quickly as I wanted them to, and that remains a challenge. However, the biggest challenge was honing my skill at discerning whether a person who on the surface agreed with me was actually embracing the ideas and was going to do something. Unfortunately, there are many people who speak the right words about engineering education and diversity but don’t actually do anything. Being able to figure out early on which ones were actually going to do something was a really good skill to have, because you didn’t want to waste your time with people who were just the talkers.

Finding and Funding Leaders in Engineering Education

I would characterize my role as one of providing financial support to leaders who were going to undertake projects to improve engineering education. In addition to these projects, we also supported the research that studied these efforts in order to learn how we can be smarter about improving engineering education, and then ultimately have a better theory of how people learn engineering. That was my main influence on the community. But of course, within that, picking the right people to fund is also very important.

I have been able to secure platforms from which I could advocate for engineering education. These platforms have been strong because of Eric Bloch at NSF and also my industry colleagues, who I had good relationships with. I want to recognize the companies who were very forceful, as well as the Society of Automotive Engineers, who were very strong at that time on the question of diversity and developed some wonderful and very effective pre-college programs. We in engineering education really should give more credit to the influence the companies have had in keeping the issue of engineering education and diversity high on the priority list of engineering schools, through the industrial advisory boards and through the money, time, and effort that companies contribute. If we didn’t have that positive force, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near as far as we have. I have found, for the most part, that their demands were much more student-centered and contributed to the students’ formation in a positive way.

My main focus has been to support young faculty members who are starting out on their careers, by way of the CAREER program at NSF. This is a prestigious award for new faculty who are just beginning, and it has been very important in establishing engineering education research as a bona fide field, getting it recognized within NSF and in engineering schools. The CAREER awards give new faculty visibility and recognition in the university and in the larger engineering community, and they have really helped give the field more recognition. Also, these faculty get money that they can use to support graduate students and to do good projects which have significant results, and that has added to the body of knowledge in the field. I think that really helped move the field forward.

I think the most important thing for the growth of the field has been supporting graduate students and faculty early in their careers. Another important step was Virginia Tech and Purdue establishing their departments for engineering education. I don’t think that every engineering school needs to have a department of engineering education, but having two of our very strong schools make that commitment really helped establish the field and create a home for faculty and graduate students.

Be Strategic

My first piece of advice to new engineering education scholars is to pick a place to work where you know you can flourish. This takes some skill to develop. It’s not just the reputation of the place or because one faculty member who you want to work with is there. You really have to be tuned in to the climate of the home institution, and you have to negotiate pretty hard with the department chair, dean, or whoever is hiring you, so that you get the resources you need to be successful and that you’re quite confident that you have the support that you need. You also need to be prudent about choosing a place that has the kind of mission and strategic plan that really fits what you want to do.

I would encourage new scholars to really diversify the sources that they look to for funding, including NSF or other federal agencies, foundations, and companies.

I would also like to see more people focus on discipline-specific engineering research topics. I observe engineering as a field, and it really doesn’t hang together across all the disciplines. Therefore, to really be successful at doing engineering education work, you should think about serving one of the disciplines.

Reflecting on this pioneer’s story…

  • Dr. Kemnitzer reflects on how she has been able to support and promote diversity in engineering from the funding side. In your experience, how has funding made a difference in the engineering education community?
  • Dr. Kemnitzer advises new engineering education scholars to “pick a place to work where you know you can flourish.” What should someone look for in order to know whether they might flourish in a place? How can you ensure that your own setting is a place that is supportive of new scholars?

Photo provided by Dr. Kemnitzer.