19:30 PM

Establishing equity for engineering excellence

Shirley Malcom, a pioneer in creating access to STEM education, speaks to the Swanson School as part of Black History Month

“Engineering has failed,” Shirley Malcom bluntly said during her opening remarks in Benedum Hall at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering. The School’s Engineering Office of Diversity at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering welcomed Malcom as the keynote speaker for its annual Black History Month Celebration. She currently serves as the senior advisor to the CEO and director of the SEA Change initiative at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). 

Malcom, a contemporary pioneer in improving and creating access to STEM education and career opportunities, and expanded on the opportunities lost to both STEM and underrepresented minorities through racism, ignorance of equity, and the glacial pace of change in academia.

Engineering is part of a larger, historical problem that exists throughout all disciplines of the sciences. Some of the best early scientists in medicine and engineering were purposely forgotten in history due to the color of their skin, Malcom said. 

“We may never know about what [marginalized communities] have done or accomplished,” Malcom said. 

Malcom explained that enslaved populations were unable to obtain patents for their inventions, so it’s impossible to know the names of the individuals behind certain advancements in science. Certain women, who weren’t able to work, are also unknown. 

The Swanson School knows this first-hand - William Hunter Dammond, the university's first African American graduate who received his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 1893, developed the “Dammond Circuit '' which was the foundation of modern railway safety. However, intentional patent violations by scrupulous competitors would lead to lost wealth and Dammond’s death as a pauper in 1956.

“There’s a whole bunch of history that we’ve lost,” Malcom said. 

As a child growing up in Alabama in the 1950s, Malcom became interested in math and science after experiencing the USSR’s launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. Not only was she interested in areas of STEM, she was also good at it. 

At the same time, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was well under way. As a young Black woman who didn’t have the same resources as her peers in academia, Malcom had to learn to navigate a system that actively worked against marginalized groups. 

Her passion for math and science and her experience living through a pivotal time in United States’ history influenced Malcom’s personal and professional journey. She said she recognized science as an important “social tool” and the need for equity. 

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are essential for excellence in science, teaching, service, and innovation.” 

Karina Atiegha

Karina Atiegha, a junior studying bioengineering at the Swanson School, was particularly moved by Malcom’s speech. Atiegha asked Malcom about how she could keep motivated in her career field, knowing issues of race and disparity still exist in the US healthcare system. Malcom explained to Atiegha that it's important to recognize these issues are real but to channel that passion into solving them. She gave Atiegha a piece of advice: to put a Post-it® note on her computer that reads I’m not crazy, and whenever she questions herself and motivations, to read the message to herself.. 

“I’m going to put it on my laptop,” Atiegha said. 

Atiegha, after meeting Malcom, is considering pursuing a career path in higher education to help students struggling with identity and access.