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Changing the Nature of Engineering Education: Lynn Andrea Stein Is Leading Conversations About Identity and STEM

Lynn Andrea Stein ● Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science ● Olin College

Lynn Andrea Stein ● Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science ● Olin College

When asked, “What have you built that you’re most proud of?” Lynn Andrea Stein has a simple answer: Olin. After a decade on the MIT faculty, she joined the founding faculty of Olin College, a Boston-area residential undergraduate engineering college.

“Olin was created to change the nature of engineering education, as called for by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), National Science Foundation (NSF), and industry panels. In particular, Olin augments our students’ technical education with teamwork, communication, leadership, and understandings understandings of business as well as human context and communication. These are skills that traditional engineering education has not always done a good job of teaching.”

It also differs from many other schools of engineering because of its demographics: its student body has consistently been gender-balanced.

“Though it is gender-balanced, we quickly discovered that Olin is still part of the world and all of the social shaping that we experience. So we created the Gender and Engineering Co-Curricular Activity, now renamed Identity and Engineering: a group and regular conversation that helped all of us understand how the society we live in shapes our experiences. I think that framing has been incredibly helpful for generations of Olin students. And we have created programming that we’ve taken on the road to help people have conversations about how expectations and small differences can create a culture and a climate that is not experienced equally by everyone. From semester to semester who is in the room changes; I think pretty much everyone who comes experiences it as cathartic.”

In her own case, Stein learned early on that the sky was the limit from seeing the example of her mother, a practicing physician.

“I’ve been fortunate to have had lots of people who mentored me in various ways. I almost always found that I had to take different parts of mentorship from different people. Having multiple mentors at all times was really important. Because one person would be able to help me figure out my way through one thing and then have blind spots that another mentor could help me with.”

In particular, she cites the value of a peer community of women she found the first time she took a sabbatical, joining a cohort of 40 female fellows at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

“It was the first time in my professional career that I found myself in a group of women exclusively — all of whom were working on significant scholarly creative or other kinds of work, forming a community, learning to speak across disciplines, and giving me a sense of the power of being in an all female context. It was a very different kind of environment from the ones I had been in until then.”

Her positive experience with this community also catalyzed deeper thinking about the ways certain spaces restrict or enable our expression of our multiplex identities.

“They reminded me that while we talk a lot about the challenge of being a woman in tech, we don’t necessarily talk about the challenge of being a technologist among women. Many of us have the experience of walking into a tech space and feeling that in order to navigate that space successfully, we need to leave a part of who we are behind. We’re working to change that, we want to be able to bring our whole selves into the tech space. That sentence probably isn’t a surprise to any woman who has experienced tech spaces — we have a conversation about that. Sometimes, when I walk into a space full of women, I also feel that in order to be a good participant and successful in that community, I have to leave some of the tech parts of myself behind. We don’t talk about that. We need to start that conversation too. The [Radcliffe fellows group] was a group who accepted me as the whole person I amwas, in a way that had sometimes felt difficult — either being the woman I was or being the tech geek that I also am.”

Creating spaces where people are able to bring their “whole selves” is not only a passion for Stein in her pedagogical work but also the recommendation she gives to young women:

“Find a way to be yourself that’s true to who you are and that enables you to be yourself. It’s easy to believe there’s one way you’re supposed to be. If we have to reshape ourselves to be what the world expects of us, then we’re depriving the world of the gift of who we actually are.”


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Written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. These stories are proudly told in partnership with AnitaB.org in a joint effort to showcase inspiring and diverse women in STEM at the 2019 ASU/GSV Summit.