Somos Hacha y Machete What Does Diversity Have to Do With Engineering Anyway?
Antonio Garcia, Ph.D., Associate Dean Of Academics For The College Of Engineering, New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico
Discussion about diversity, inclusion, and equity has been steadily gaining attention in higher education, and the increasing awareness of its importance, especially in the current state of enrollment declines due to a reduction in the traditional college-age U.S. student population.
When the discussion about diversity turns to STEM fields, the demographics continue to show disparities between students enrolled in these fields vs. the overall population either by state or in the national as a whole. The E part of STEM (engineering) is especially pointed out as needing more diversity and having to respond to calls for more inclusion since the gender disparity is high in many of the subfields of engineering.
Logical arguments abound as to the need to attract all types of students into engineering, but in our current world of constant “information” in the form of statistics, tweets, blogs, etc., aren’t we missing the human side of what diversity means? To me engineering is a humanistic endeavor, and I am not alone in this view (just search these terms for a glimpse of the many thoughtful articles on this subject). So, what does diversity have to do with engineering? This is too big a question to answer in full, so please accept this recollection of a moment that challenged me and helped define “us” – meaning how the people in the audience and I can relate to each other and close the social distance between “us” a bit.
Recently while presenting to the NMSU Board of Regents and State Legislators on student initiatives in the college of engineering, I rushed through a 5-minute discussion on the work that my colleagues are doing to bolster engineering student success. In trying to express the vision of the college as to how we teach, mentor, and create a student-centric environment to prepare workforce ready graduates, I said that we want the students to be confident and to think of themselves as: “Somos hacha y machete”. The specific translation of this old Cuban saying is “We are experts” or “We can get this done”. In my haste I realized that they were not sure how to interpret what I said, and after the initial puzzled looks from the audience, I could see that I needed to explain what this meant. I explained the meaning but then knew that since some thought that the phrasing was odd, I needed to elaborate to give the full meaning of what I was trying to say.
Some background is important here. NMSU is a land-grant school that prides itself on being among one of the first mechanical arts and agriculture colleges in the southwest, and we have a strong and continuing commitment to agricultural sciences and extension outreach throughout the state. I grew up in the greater NYC area and know next to nothing about farming, but was born in rural central Cuba on my grandfather’s farm. So, in the spur of the moment I dug out the only cultural reference point that could possibly work for me in order to hit as many themes at once in a short period of time.
The phrase “Somos hacha y machete” is a well-recognized Cuban saying and comes from the idea that before mechanization, in order to farm in tropical environments, you needed an ax and a machete blade and to know which one to use and when to use it. While the construct of making tools become part of you seems odd, in fact it is a natural way that language use can be compact and poetic as a means of identifying a person and tools as one, in order to convey the idea of being “expert” at something. I was able to quickly explain the agricultural reference, and then realized that many in the audience grasped the idea quite easily.
As I could see that the audience was understanding the relevance of the saying, it struck me by the expressions on their faces that perhaps some were creating a picture in their minds of hacking away at the jungle in order to plant crops. I think that it is also possible that this imagery can help drive home to our stakeholders a message that they probably heard many different times, but may now associate this concept that my colleagues and I feel is important with a new visual image. More concretely, using this imagery could help emphasize that there are many ways to express what it means to be “expert”, and that as a university faculty and staff we are not always thinking along purely academic or “book learning” as a means to generate expertise.
Communicating concepts to an audience in an informal format is not as simple as reading a list and having the audience easily remember all or even some of the items on the list. Our industry partners and recruiters have a series of skills that they want engineering students to have, such as written and oral communication, working under pressure, teaming, leadership, etc. But this is a long and more complex list to absorb in a brief talk with multiple agenda items. More important in this setting may be to stress to a very important group of stakeholders that more resources than simply classroom instruction is needed to meet the needs of industry.
For me, being a 1st generation college graduate from a low-income family, and an immigrant is a hidden strength that I really never understood in 30+ years of being an engineering professor and administrator. Sure, I worked with colleagues at multiple universities on student and faculty diversity and still do, but it took me this long to understand and learn that diversity has value by being able to explain abstract concepts in new ways to a broader audience that includes decision-makers. This experience has illustrated to me that we need to draw from all engineering professors and staff that they should use not just their expertise, but also life experiences to drive home important points and communicate these key ideas at a fundamental level to our stakeholders.
A final note is that my approach to a student success program vision is simple, but it also transcends the specific jargon we have been hearing about and writing about as necessary for the engineer of the 21st century. In human endeavors, we as engineering faculty and leaders need to understand that we all interpret the world differently. By harking back to 19th century modes of expression and values, it reminds us that we have always needed people who ascribe to the idea of “Somos Hacha y Machete” because all of us want solutions to problems, and many of us want someone else to worry about the details.
My request to you the reader, who is part of university engineering education, or any field for that matter, see the value of diversity and use unique experiences and backgrounds to help us achieve our goals of building a robust university system.
Antonio (“Tony”) García was recently appointed as Associate Dean of Academics for the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University and brings more than 34 years of experience in academia and industry. He also holds the position of George W. Lucky Professor in Chemical Engineering due to his expertise in bioprocessing and biomedical devices. As a designer, inventor and researcher, he has developed several diagnostic and drug delivery technologies in conjunction with an international team whose mission is to promote the use of personalized care technology to improve global health. Dr. García is also actively involved in education and human resource projects aimed at improving math, science, and engineering education and to meet the demand for a robust technological workforce as the nation’s demographics changes. He was Associate Editor of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching 2003-2005 and was the project director of a National Science Foundation program (LSAMP) project, established in 1992, to enhance opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in science, math and engineering. After moving to Las Cruces in August 2019, he led a team of NMSU faculty to recently secure a NSF HSI grant (which began in April 2020) on Innovative Partnerships with Industry with the theme of: Enhancing Social Mobility by Combing Adult Learning within an Engineering Curriculum. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org