Acting for Computer Scientists and Engineers

Julia Williams


Recently, I attended the National Science Foundation’s REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments (NSF RED) Principal Investigators Meeting, sponsored by the NSF and organized by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE).  At the meeting, engineering and computer science faculty, engineering education researchers, sociologists, organizational change experts, graduate students, and many others (roughly 120 individuals) shared their work on transformational change projects that target engineering and computer science students’ second year.  These projects vary widely—from curriculum changes, to co-curricular activities, to wholesale reorganizations of entire colleges—but one thing the projects hold in common is their focus on improving diversity, equity, and inclusion(DEI) in STEM.

There are many strategies the RED teams are employing to improve DEI at their institutions, and the sessions at the meeting were their opportunity to share this work with other attendees.  I selected “Theater of the Oppressed and Other Social Justice Stimuli for Organizational Transformations,” as one of the many excellent sessions I attended.  “Theater” was presented by Sarah Provencal, adjunct professor of theater at Winthrop University and Celine Latulipe, professor of software and information systems at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.  But this was no ordinary conference session, where academics stand on stage and lecture attendees on the benefits of active learning while they subject us to PowerPoints and minimal interaction.

Instead Provencal and Latulipe invited us to engage in their subject using acting exercises that they are introducing to their students.  These exercises are based on the work of Brazilian theater director Augusto Boal.  Theater of the Oppressed (TotO) has a long and influential history in theater circles.  Using the work of educator Paolo Friere as a base, Boal developed theatrical forms and techniques as a “means of promoting social and political change. In the Theater of the Oppressed, the audience becomes active, such that as spect-actors’ they explore, show, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living” (Wikipedia),

For the RED meeting TotO session, our leaders offered this explanation of the work we would do: Continue reading “Acting for Computer Scientists and Engineers”

Hello … I’m here, can you hear me?

Eva Andrijcic


On July 10 and 11, I attended the National Science Foundation’s REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments (NSF RED) Principal Investigators Meeting, sponsored by the NSF and organized by the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) ( This two-day meeting was envisioned as a place where recipients of the coveted NSF RED grants could share experiences and ideas on how to further promote the revolution in engineering and computer science education research and practice. One among the several goals of the meeting was to explore models for changing culture, especially with regard to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

For me, the meeting’s focus on DEI was refreshing and timely.  Attendees were primarily engineering and computer science faculty who are transforming their programs, curricula, and institutional structures. But in order to make their projects sustainable, these change agents must use innovative problem solving and garner widespread support, which can only be achieved when multiple perspectives, experiences and voices are taken into consideration.  In other words, sustainable change projects have to support an inclusive culture which “enables ideas, perspectives, and experiences to be fully leveraged, creating a wide bandwidth for problem solving and innovation” [1].

Many individuals assume that diversity is the same as inclusion. In an interview for Forbes magazine [2], Jennifer Brown, author of “Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace, and the Will to Change” summarizes the difference between diversity and inclusion as follows:

“Diversity is the who and the what: who’s sitting around that table, who’s being recruited, who’s being promoted, who we’re tracking from the traditional characteristics and identities of gender and ethnicity, and sexual orientation and disability – inherent characteristics that we’re born with. Inclusion, on the other hand, is the how. Inclusion is the behaviors that welcome and embrace diversity. If you are a great leader for inclusion, you have figured out how to embrace and galvanize [the] diversity of voices and identities.”

Katz and Frederick [1] define inclusion as:

“A sense of belonging: Feeling respected, valued, and seen for who we are as individuals; There is a level of supportive energy and commitment from leaders, colleagues, and others so that we – individually and collectively – can do our best work.”

Inclusion is key to implementing successful and sustainable change projects. If we are changing the status quo, we need to consider how our ideas will impact involved individuals, especially those who do not currently feel empowered to voice their opinions.  We need to establish processes that invite their diverse knowledge and partner with them to build a better and more sustainable solution.

How do we go about creating an environment in which people who are rarely heard from feel safe and able to contribute and express themselves? How do we create an environment in which people feel that their contributions are appreciated? Continue reading “Hello … I’m here, can you hear me?”

The Fear of the Unknown

Eva Andrijcic

I’d like to challenge you to a little gamble. Imagine that I show you a large jar that is filled with 90 marbles. You cannot see inside of the jar, but I tell you that the jar contains exactly 90 marbles, and of those exactly 30 are yellow, and the other sixty are a combination of black and red marbles, but the actual ratio of them is unknown. Each marble is as likely to be drawn out of the jar as any other.

Gamble A: You’ll get $100 if you draw a yellow marble

Gamble B: You’ll get $100 if you draw a black marble

If you picked A, you’re not alone! In fact, economist Daniel Ellsberg showed that in situations like this, individuals overwhelmingly tend to pick wagers for which they know the expected outcomes versus wagers for which the expected outcome is unknown. In the example above, you know that you have a 1 in 3 chance of drawing a yellow marble, but you don’t know what the proportion of black marbles is;  there could be anywhere from 1 – 59 black marbles in the jar. So, despite the fact that the likelihood of picking a black marble could be much higher than that of picking a yellow one, in general, when confronted with incomplete information, individuals select the value for which they know the outcome. This is called the Ellsberg paradox.

The marble example is relevant to any discussion of change.  For many of us, changing strategy is hard because the outcomes are ambiguous. Why change the strategy which has for so long resulted in predictable results, if we cannot guarantee with some level of certainty that the change will result in anything better? Why settle for the evil we don’t know, when we can choose the evil we do? Ellsberg and other behavioral economists have proven that people in general dislike and fear ambiguity in business and personal situations. We are wired to resist ambiguity, and recent research shows that even our close primate relatives dislike ambiguity [1].  In practice we often choose suboptimal strategies to avoid the fear of the unknown: from choosing a good old restaurant we always go to instead of trying a new one that might be better, to preferring bonds and deposits over stocks in our portfolios because of the volatility of stock prices.

So, what does this have to do with change? Very often when we ask people to join our change efforts, or when we seek support and buy-in, we might ignore the fact that we are asking people to suspend their fear of the unknown. We don’t always have all of the answers ready; the outcomes caused by our change might be ambiguous, as might be our communication with those impacted. Yet we ask people to trust us and our experience. Sometimes they might not be able to do so immediately, not because they don’t believe in us or our change initiatives, but because they are afraid of the unknown. That is completely natural, and we should anticipate that response!

So, what can we do? First of all, we can accept resistance to ambiguity as a natural gut reaction, and proactively seek areas where people we talk to might want more clarity. We can reduce ambiguity of communication by truthfully acknowledging the existence of ambiguity in the process, goals or outcomes of our change initiative. We can try to reduce those ambiguities as much as possible by drawing parallels to similar examples or experiences at our or other institutions. We can try to implement our change initiatives in increments to give individuals time to assess and adjust to the unknown. We can also point out to individuals the presence of the Ellsberg paradox – bring the unconscious to the forefront so that people think more deeply about the factors that are guiding their decision making. Continue reading “The Fear of the Unknown”