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Putting the IDEA to Action

Pitt’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering developed the IDEA Committee to improve inclusivity issues found in engineering education and beyond

Percy Curtis, a senior studying environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering, always felt out of place. 

When he came to Pitt’s Swanson School, those feelings were just compounded. He knew he wasn’t the typical engineer, but didn’t have the exact words to describe what he was feeling – yet. Despite being a 4.0 student, Curtis was considering leaving the Swanson School because of the emotional toll his isolation was taking. 

“I’m a good engineer; I know that,” Curtis said. “But, that wasn’t enough of an incentive for me to stay here.”

Then, just one day changed the trajectory of his entire life. 

It was October 11, 2022, or National Coming Out Day, and Curis noticed a booth in the lobby of Benedum Hall for handing out bracelets in support of LGBTQ+ students, faculty and staff. Curtis immediately felt empowered and validated when he put his on; however, his excitement slowly faded throughout the day when he noticed none of his peers and professors with one. 

Finally, he noticed one professor wearing a bracelet. 

“I was very moved when I saw the bracelet,” Curtis said. “That professor was potentially putting a target on their back, but was unapologetic and completely unafraid.” 

Curtis decided he was no longer going to hide who he was. The weekend after National Coming Out Day, he cut his hair and began identifying as his true self: a transgender man.

Noticing Curtis’ new confidence, the same professor wearing the bracelet introduced Curtis to Pitt’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access (IDEA) Committee, a group of students, faculty, and staff committed to fostering a culture that enables all to grow to their full potential.  

Curtis, who recognized the need for more representation in the department, joined on the spot. 

“I have a complicated relationship with being called a trailblazer,” Curtis said. “The term is romanticized, but I knew how much of an impact that one day in October made on my life, so I wanted to do something like that for someone else.” 

What’s the big IDEA? 

The IDEA Committee (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access) was officially formed in 2021 under the direction of Radisav Vidic, the Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor and department chair of civil and environmental engineering,. Melissa Bilec, the department's George M. and Eva M. Bevier Professor and co-director of the  Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at Pitt, is IDEA’s inaugural co-chair, but she credits its members as the true pioneers of the committee’s growth.

“As civil and environmental engineers, we’re in service to our community,” Bilec said. “Co-creating the IDEA Committee was a way for us to bring together voices to discuss and hopefully positively impact the CEE community.”

The full committee meets once a month while the three subcommittees have additional meetings as needed. The three subcommittees work to address problems unique not only to the Swanson School, but the community of engineering education at large. The Learning Subcommittee is dedicated to expanding knowledge and resources rooted in diversity, equity and inclusion, both in general and relation to being a civil and environmental engineering student. The Champion Subcommittee manages the Undergraduate Champions – students who determine solutions through the IDEA Committee for student-related issues – and is working towards developing graduate student champions. The Social Committee organizes events for the CEE community to come and decompress. 

Bilec said she drew much of her inspiration from Pitt’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science’s Student Advisory Board (SAB), which was formed after the death of George Floyd sparked a need for social change in 2020.

Dr. Vidic said he saw the need for something like the committee as he recognized that students weren’t likely to approach him personally with challenges they may face. 

“Something like the IDEA Committee creates a safe environment for us not only to continue to improve our department but not lose the talent we see in so many of our young engineers,” Vidic said. 

Though still a very grassroots project, the committee has been really finding its stride this past year. Yvette Moore, director of Pitt EXCEL at the Swanson School, has been in the front row seat of its growth as someone that’s been part of it since the beginning. 

“We’re working together to understand what diversity and inclusion looks like in civil and environmental engineering,” Moore said. “And it’s not just my voice. It’s all of our voices.”

Putting the IDEA to Good IUSE

The IDEA Committee works in tandem with a grant Bilec received in 2020 from the National Science Foundation to create inclusive classrooms, which are designed to improve the learning and academic performance for underrepresented students. As part of the grant, Jessica Vaden, a PhD candidate in the department, built a website, called The IUSE-PIPE Project, to help professors in implementing these processes. The project hosts a number of resources that are supported by peer-reviewed research that guide professors before, during, and after the semester. Something as important as the syllabus can be overlooked when considering inclusivity, Vaden said. 

“In doing this research, we realized that a lot of these resources needed a home,” Vaden said. “Going forward, we also believe that these are not the final answer to creating inclusive classrooms, so part of the IDEA Committee is ensuring that we still use this website as a guide, but continue to keep it relevant as professors across the country use it.” 

April Dukes, Faculty and Future Faculty Program Director at the Engineering Education Research Center, was asked to serve on the IDEA Committee to help facilitate inclusive education practices after working on the The IUSE-PIPE Project with Bilec. She said something like the IDEA Committee and the project grants professors skills they likely didn’t receive during their graduate career. 

“Many instructors never have any training on best practices in teaching or management as a part of their graduate studies,” Dukes said. Gaining these skills after becoming a faculty member requires time, access, and unlearning, making it very challenging. Having a committee that explores ways for their department to be more inclusive and one that shares that information back to the department can be crucial for the growth of individuals and communities. It sends the message that the department is striving to create a more inclusive environment for everyone, especially since staff, undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty all contribute to the committee.

Working under the committee, Curtis came to realize how broad inclusivity issues can be – and how many layers they can have. Students were coming to the committee with issues receiving disability accommodations for their classes. Curtis and members of his subcommittee began investigating further and found that professors were having difficulties navigating Pitt’s Disability Resources and Services website. The committee then hosted a training for professors to begin implementing these accommodations into their classrooms. 

“I was surprised when I joined this committee by how much of our work has a tangible outcome,” Curtis said. “Doing something like the faculty training motivated me just to work harder in solving these issues – because that change needs to happen.”