Master of Her Matrix

Debbie Chachra on modeling new behavior in engineering education, recognizing unconscious bias, and terraforming our environments.

09 April 2019
Daneet Steffens
Debbie Chachra speaks at SPIE Photonics West's Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion reception
COLLECTIVE ACTION: Chachra at SPIE Photonics West's Equity, Diversity & Inclusion reception earlier this year

According to Debbie Chachra, professor at Olin College of Engineering, champion of proactive diversification, and communicator extraordinaire, there are three laws of inclusion and equity:

1. It is a lot of work.
2. You can never stop doing it.
3. You will definitely mess up.

None of which is stopping her. "At this point, I believe in structural change and I believe in plans of action," Chachra says in a sun-lit room in San Francisco prior to speaking at SPIE Photonics West's Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion reception. "I've realized that I cannot move the needle on the things that I want to change as an individual we need to do that collectively. Infrastructure is fundamentally collective: it is how we take care of each other, and it's a potential lever for making significant collective change."

In 2003, Chachra, fresh from an MIT post-doc in materials science and with a growing interest in academic governance, joined the newly formed Olin College of Engineering as a faculty member. Olin was established to address widespread dissatisfaction, underpinned by reports from the National Academy of Engineering, the National Science Foundation, and other peer organizations, with the way engineering students were being taught, something with which Chachra had direct experience. "In my undergraduate engineering degree we did a lot of math," she recalls. "We did a bare minimum of design and we did very little in terms of understanding how to apply what we learned in the real world, never mind thinking about the larger social context. It was the classic kind of indoctrination: engineers and scientists are apolitical  their job is just to do the technical stuff, nothing else really matters, nothing else is really important."

Debbie Chachra, Kyle Meyers and Amanda Meier at SPIE Photonics West's Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion reception
DYNAMIC TRIO: Amanda Meier of Spectra-Physics (left), SPIE Fellow Kyle Myers of the FDA (center), and Debbie Chachra at SPIE Photonics West's Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion reception

Olin's dual mission is to educate its students in ways that addresses these concerns, and to serve as a catalyst for broader change at other institutions to reshape education, really. Following the initial dynamics of a typical startup "the first four years I was there, the metaphor we used was ‘building the plane while flying it'" - Olin has landed on point: in a 2018 MIT report on the state of global engineering education, the college was named as both a leader and an emerging innovator in engineering education.

"We take a very design-focused approach to creating good learning experiences," says Chachra. "Our approach to teaching is very much undertaken for users: prototype; iterate; figure out what it needs to be or to do; design accordingly." Along with good communications skills, collaborative teamwork is integral to the students' immersive learning experiences, with the understanding that very few problems in the world are single-discipline problems. "We do a lot of project-based work which ties in with modern understanding of motivation: students work on things they consider meaningful, they are working with other people, they are learning how to apply what they're studying rather than learning a whole bunch of stuff pre-emptively that they may or may not use."

As an inherent element of improving engineering education, Olin also has an active commitment to gender equity. That commitment is reflected in their acceptance and graduation numbers which are equally split between women and men compared to most engineering schools where women make up about 20-30 percent of the students  and the college is working toward parity for other underrepresented groups as well. "Non-equity," Chachra observes, "tells you something about your culture and who it's a welcoming environment for. Changing what it means to be an engineering student is one way to change what the culture is, what kind of people feel welcome and valued and integrated. That's certainly a piece of it. The other thing, of course, is that changing the demographics of your institution doesn't end when you admit the students - you also have to figure out how to create a welcoming environment where they can thrive, where they don't feel like they have to hide, where they can be themselves. That's cultural change."

Deb Chachra teaching first year students in Design Nature.
LAB LIFE: Chachra working with first-year students 

There are two common things that people talk about, Chachra notes, regarding why equity and diversity matter. "My least favorite reason is the ‘You will design better products/diversity is good for the bottom line' one. That's true, but that's not the reason to do it. The reason to do it is because it's about creating equitable environments for everyone: there's no reason why we should have an environment where some people should feel more welcome than others on the basis of things that are irrelevant, like demographics. I think of those two aspects as the instrumental argument - the ‘it's good for American competitiveness' and the justice argument: you do it because it is right. Even if it costs you money, you should do it because it's the right thing to do. One of the nice things about being in academia is that we are mission-driven organizations  and SPIE is as well, right? As nonprofit organizations, we absolutely can and should be in the lead in terms of doing the work to build more just environments."

And, she says, there's a third element to keep in mind: we all live in societies that are shaped by gender and racial bias and, in many cases, we don't understand the degree to which we are shaped by those biases. "Nobody thinks they're biased. But whether it's not figuring out what heart attacks look like in women, or looking at populations and thinking, ‘Well, there's hunting and gathering and hunters get the real food that everyone eats and the gatherers do stuff around the edges,' and then you actually look at the caloric input and it turns out that, like, hunting is nice but people actually live on what's gathered - those are just a couple of examples. A lifetime's exposure to this means that we do it mostly unconsciously, and we can only deal with that if we actively take that fact on board."

The history of science, she continues, is filled with stories of people who made bad scientific decisions because they didn't consider their own biases. "If you genuinely care about making decisions that are grounded in reality, that reflect a true understanding of the world, you'll understand that retaining our biased structure actually gets in the way of accomplishing good science." Chachra pauses. "You'll understand that real change is required."

Deb Chachra teaching first year students in Design Nature.
EXPERIMENTAL BY DESIGN: Chachra supervising first-year students' work

That approach to consciously shaping our environments and our cultures  terraforming  is on us, collectively. "For most of my adult life and many decades before that," says Chachra, "people were just told, ‘You have to deal with it. You as an individual, you have to behave differently.' And it turns out that there's no way that you can do it, right? It's absolutely impossible to fix it by yourself. So the conclusion is that we actually have to change the environment, and changing the environment is everyone's issue, especially if you don't think it applies to you."

Which brings us back to infrastructure and Chachra's abiding interest its societal impact, its technological underpinnings, and its civic importance: her recently announced book project, Public Utility, promises an exciting, in-depth exploration of that interest. "Infrastructural systems are complicated," she says. "Why are somethings infrastructure and not others? Is the CDC infrastructure? Is GPS infrastructure? Why is water infrastructure but not food? So there are some meaty questions." And Debbie Chachra, I suspect, would like to answer them all.


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