Home > Isn't It Ironic?, Naming Experience, Why There Are No Women in Science > Scholarships for “Special” People, Redux

Scholarships for “Special” People, Redux

From the Chronicle of Higher Education, Home-Schooled Students Rise in Supply and Demand:

“Home schooling often really allows students to develop a passion,” says Sabena Moretz, associate director of admissions at Richmond. “With a traditional high school, most of the time you don’t see a kid who’s gotten so excited with the history of Monticello or got themselves onto an archaeology dig.”
Recognizing that sense of passion is what led Virginia Commonwealth University to create two engineering scholarships this year for home-schoolers, says Russell Jamison, dean of the engineering school. “We were looking at the kind of engineer that we needed to produce for the 21st century,” he says, “where part of the skills are not technical, but how to collect information through guided inquiry.” [emphasis added]

Well whaddya know. An engineering scholarship just for being home-schooled. Isn’t that interesting? They’ve identified a minority group that they want to preferentially recruit to their engineering program, and so they established a scholarship just for members of that group. Amazing.


I wait now for the hue and cry to rise from those who protest the unfairness of such despicably discriminatory practices.
Let’s see. Dean Jamison claims that homeschooled students possess certain qualities that make them very suited to engineering in the 21st century, therefore it makes sense to make a special effort to recruit them. Do you accept that premise? Then listen to what William Wulf had to say, when he was president of the National Academy of Engineering:

[a]t a fundamental level, men, women, ethnic minorities, racial minorities, and people with handicaps, experience the world differently. Those differences in experience are the “gene pool” from which creativity springs. [1]
Since the products and processes we create are limited by the life experiences of the workforce, the best solution–the elegant solution–may never be considered because of that lack [of diversity]. [2]

I assume that Dean Jamison at VCU does not wish to bestow his scholarships upon unqualified students; but he does want to reserve some scholarship money for attracting good students of a certain type, because of special characteristics they have that will bring something needed to engineering.
When people get all hot and bothered about attempts to diversify the science and engineering workforce, there is an unarticulated subtext. What you hear is “jobs and scholarships should be awarded on the basis of merit only” and “we have to maintain standards” and “I am against discrimination of any kind, even positive discrimination”. You’ll hear people say things like “I am all in favor of recruiting those ‘others’, as long as they’re qualified.”
But what is meant is that white women, or men and women of color, or people with disabilities, have nothing desirable to offer to science and engineering. They are, by default, unqualified. The nicest kind of thing you’ll hear is “I’m all in favor of recruiting those ‘others’ if they can be shown to be acceptable.”

Now, that said, I’m all for enticing women to come into sciences by offering fellowships to qualified candidates, but not at the expense of someone else more qualified.

But the true feeling will occasionally be expressed, which is that it’s unlikely that any of them will turn out to be any good.

Therefore, we either have to assume they’re useful and just take that risk,

If they were good enough to be doing science and engineering, they’d already be doing it, because the scientific and engineering enterprise is a complete meritocracy (whose standards must be defended) that attracts the best minds. By default, those who do science and engineering are the best and brightest. They are there because they have passed the test, they belong there; those who aren’t there, don’t. To do anything special to allow them in would be making accommodation for unqualified individuals. Or so goes the thinking.
To acknowledge that members of underrepresented groups might have something to offer to science and engineering, and that it would be worth our while to recruit them to the professions, would be to acknowledge that the enterprise as now constructed does not operate as a complete meritocracy. That would mean also acknowledging that, perhaps, some of the success of those currently practicing science and engineering did not come about completely as a result of their own merit and effort.
Note that this is not the same thing as saying that someone who is currently, say, a professor, is completely undeserving of that position. Our hypothetical professor may be bright, may have worked very hard, may have made serious contributions to the discipline. And yet, if our professor is male, he has most certainly been the beneficiary of gender privilege; if he or she is white, they have certainly had the luxury of racial privilege; and if they are fully-abled, they have not had to deal with any of the hardships the disabled face in education and the job market.
People don’t like admitting these simple and obvious truths because they feel that to do so means admitting something about themselves, personally. If I have benefited from racial privilege, then I must be a racist! I’m not a racist, I’m a nice person! Therefore it’s not possible that I have gained anything in my current position from racial privilege! I earned it all through my own hard work! It’s so, so difficult to let go of that defensiveness, to see that privilege is built into the system, that we benefit from privilege available to us whether we want to or not. It isn’t a referendum on our personal character; it’s the inevitable outcome given the way things are currently structured.
But the good news is we can actually work against it if we choose to. There are techniques and tools available to counter implicit bias. One can train one’s self to be aware of gender and race and disability issues. There is no excuse not to.
Unless, of course, you just don’t think those “others” are good enough to bother.
[1] Wulf, W. A. (1999). Diversity in Engineering. In Moving Beyond Indidvidual Programs to Systemic Change, WEPAN Annual Conference Proceedings (pp. 9-16). West Lafayette, IN: WEPAN Member Services.
[2] Wulf, W. A. (1999). Testimony to the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering, and Technology Development. http://www.nsf.gov/od/cawmset/meetings/hearing-990720/wawulf/wawulf.htm. (December 14, 2001).

  1. Pi Guy
    October 10, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    “…where part of the skills are not technical, but how to collect information through guided inquiry.”
    Uh, correct me if wrong here but isn’t engineering a technical field? I mean, I have nothing at all against home schooling – parents need to do what they think is right for their kids – but if one’s inquiry skills are good but they can’t, say, correctly compute the forces and moments at a node in a bridge girder then you might end up with some cars – along with their human cargo – in the bay. I prefer the meritocracy approach as well. If they’re qualified then that should be good enough.
    On a personal note, I used to work as a gymnastics coach and it turns out that pretty much every gym (in MD, at least) runs a Home Schooler class. In general, they did not tend to take class with the other kids. One trait that I found many Home Schoolers to have was that they did not tend to have good social or communications skills. Other gym instructors that I’ve discussed this with agree that they had more difficulty playing nicely with others. I’m willing to bet that the engineer of the 21st Century is still going to need to be able to communicate effectively and work in teams. I didn’t find that they were always able to do that so well.
    Further, if a family can actually afford to have a parent stay home for the kids to be home schooled, then it’s likely that the working parent is making better money than the average which probably correlates with a higher-than-average intelligence. IOW, home schooling may not necessarily be a better academic environment. Instead, the bright kids might tend be overrepresented in the Home School community when compared to the general population. So, again, if they’re already brighter then they shouldn’t need any additional encouragement to enter a technically challenging field.

  2. treeleaf
    October 10, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Pi Guy, I think the point was not about homeschooling per se. It’s about how a field decides whom they want to recruit, and how they go about that. Even if you don’t like the criteria in this case, it doesn’t mean the criteria in every case are bad. Hey, I’m not sure I’m in favor of homeschooling either for the reasons you mentioned, but I think Zuska’s making a larger argument here. I thought it was well put.

  3. kevin
    October 10, 2007 at 5:38 pm

    One difference: Homeschooling is a choice, whereas race, sex, ethnicity, and age are not.
    On other interesting thing that comes to mind is gender/identity. The fundies want it both ways. Scholarship for homeschooling is okay (b/c it is a choice) but not for ethnicity (b/c that is not a choice). Discrimination is okay against gays (b/c it is a choice), but scholarships aren’t okay. And discrimination against homeschooling is not okay (even though it is a choice).
    Must be very confusing keeping all their biases, um, straight.

  4. Herb West
    October 10, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    “[a]t a fundamental level, men, women, ethnic minorities, racial minorities, and people with handicaps, experience the world differently. Those differences in experience are the “gene pool” from which creativity springs. [1]
    Since the products and processes we create are limited by the life experiences of the workforce, the best solution–the elegant solution–may never be considered because of that lack [of diversity]. [2]”
    Wulf seems to be suggesting that there are different kinds of engineering: male and female, white and black, and abled and disabled engineering. I wonder if there is any evidence to support this. For instance, do male engineers and female engineers devise different kinds of technical solutions to engineering problems? Are there certain types of engineering problems that black engineers but not white engineers can solve? If life experiences are important, then are there separate kinds of engineering in America, Japan and Israel that reflect the different life experiences of Americans, Japanese and Israelis?

  5. October 10, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    “For instance, do male engineers and female engineers devise different kinds of technical solutions to engineering problems?”
    Yes, Herb, in fact they do. For instance, the very first speech recognition software was unable to recognize women’s voices (higher pitches) at all. I believe the development team was either largely men or all men.

  6. Herb West
    October 11, 2007 at 12:19 am

    If I understand you correctly, your example problem is speech recognition software could not recognize women’s voices.
    So what was the male engineer solution and what was the female engineer solution and were the solutions different?

  7. Ruth
    October 11, 2007 at 7:15 am

    “One difference: Homeschooling is a choice, whereas race, sex, ethnicity, and age are not. ”
    How many kids do you know who are home-schooled by their OWN choice? There are probably some, but the choice to home-school is usually made by the parents, not by the children.

  8. October 11, 2007 at 10:08 am

    Herb, how dense are you? Male engineering solution: a voice recognition system incapable of recognizing female voices. Engineering solution with male and female perspectives included: voice recognition system capable of recognizing female as well as male voices. Two different solutions to the same problem, voice recognition.
    Perhaps, Herb, you are confused. Wulf is not talking about some kind of essentialism – some innate biological quality that produces female engineering, or male engineering, or black engineering, or white engineering. What he’s talking about is really quite obvious and mundane – people in different groups have different sorts of experiences, and these different experiences are going to give them different perspectives on problem-solving. This isn’t controversial. It’s the same knowledge that informs the activities of marketers who engage in niche marketing.
    But of course, if you don’t think that women and non-whites have anything of any value to add to science and engineering – if you think that all the people who ought to be doing science and engineering are already there – you aren’t going to be moved from your prejudice by any of this.

  9. ebohlman
    October 11, 2007 at 10:29 am

    Herb: I think you’re narrowly focusing on one aspect of engineering, namely creating an implementation of a fully spec’d-out system. You’re right that background shouldn’t really matter there. But that’s only a part (and perhaps one of the smallest parts) of engineering; it doesn’t include the process of fully identifying the scope of the problem to be solved. And when everyone engaged in the latter task comes from the same background, it’s easy for them to develop tunnel vision. That’s because we’re all human and have a strong tendency to universalize our own experiences.
    This is not to say that we can never overcome this tendency; a male engineer certainly could understand that any speech-recognition system needs to be able to recognize female voices as well as male voices. And, intellectually, I’m sure most male engineers would. But there’s still the inherent human tendency to take shortcuts. It’s like the trouble that US automakers periodically get into: they start producing the kinds of cars that their executives and engineers (fairly homogeneous groups) want to drive, rather than what the typical buyer wants to drive. Diversity of background is one way to reduce the tunnel-vision problem.

  10. Herb West
    October 11, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Wulf’s words are “the best solution-the elegant solution.” He seems to be speaking of technical problems and solving them with the most simple/elegant solution. He does not seem to be talking about identifying the elegant scope of the problem to be solved as you argue.
    Zuska: “people in different groups have different sorts of experiences, and these different experiences are going to give them different perspectives on problem-solving.”
    Is there any evidence to support this? A case study maybe? What life experiences do women engineers share in common that aren’t shared by men? Are the life experiences of carrying a purse and wearing perfume as opposed to carrying a wallet and wearing cologne important to devising elegant solutions to engineering problems? For that matter, are they even relevant to identifying the scope of engineering problems? If not then what life experiences are? I think you must know of a case study at least. If you think of any examples, please be explicit about the percent gender composition of the engineers.

  11. October 11, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Oh Herb, really now, you’re just descending into trolling. You’ve been given a real-life example, and yet you ask if there is “any evidence” to support what Wulf says. You seriously need a case study to prove that different sorts of people have different life experiences? Or are you, perhaps, willing to argue that a woman born in Africa has exactly the same sorts of life experiences as you do? Call up everyone in sociology, anthropology, psychology, and political science and let them know: Herb says their disciplines have nothing to study! Give you a case study, really. Walk on over to your university’s library and peruse the shelves lined with volumes from your colleagues’ disciplines.
    Anyone who can seriously offer up the proposition that men and women do not have different sorts of life experiences, or that blacks and whites do not, on average, have different sorts of life experiences, is living in la-la land. Let’s just note that here in the U.S. the VAST MAJORITY of the work of caring for and raising children is done by women. That’s a big, big difference in life experiences right there.
    March yourself up to Detroit, Herb, and talk to the automotive design engineers there. Ask them how, over the past 15 or 20 years, they have discovered that incorporating the female perspective on design teams has been not just helpful, but necessary to stay competitive.
    But why am I even talking? We could offer you 400 examples and 600 case studies and still you would obstinately cling to your prejudice. You remind me of the dwarves who would not be fooled in C.S. Lewis’s “The Last Battle”, in the Narnia Chronicles. No evidence was sufficient to convince them they were not in the dark stinky shed of their own mental construct.

  12. treeleaf
    October 11, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Automotive is a good example. Ford and other companies realized decades ago that their male engineers didn’t have an intuitive understanding of the expectation that other users had of their cars. Meanwhile, women were (and still are) an ever-increasing percentage of car buyers, and had large influence over ‘family car’ buying decisions. They finally made them put on women’s clothing, press-on nails, and load groceries and kid seats with dolls into their calls, to broaden their perspective. One hopes that in the long run they have solved this problem by including more engineers who represent their target groups (women and minorities) rather than trying to half-ass it by having men cross dress.

  13. treeleaf
    October 11, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Oops, that was “cars” not “calls”.

  14. Karen
    October 11, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    Kevin:
    “One difference: Homeschooling is a choice, whereas race, sex, ethnicity, and age are not.
    The fundies want it both ways.
    Must be very confusing keeping all their biases, um, straight.”
    Must be almost as confusing as the notion that homeschoolers aren’t a a homogeneous group. Try fixing your own biases.
    Pi Guy: Maybe it’s something about homeschoolers who take gymnastics in MD. Your sample is pretty narrow there.
    My broader sample of homeschoolers across CT suggests that homeschoolers are a pretty broad group and have all the personal quirks of people in general, good and bad.
    MD is one of the most restrictive states on homeschooling. Maybe it has something to do with MD homeschoolers needing to closely follow the scope and sequence that the public education system has settled on.

  15. Herb West
    October 11, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    Zuska, we’re looking for examples in which gender diversity among engineers has led to elegant solutions that would have been missed otherwise. You haven’t offered 600 or 400 examples. You’ve asserted one but without any details. Let’s stick with automotive design. Which company are you referring to? How did gender diversity among design engineers produce solutions that kept that company competitive?
    I’m curious about how you know the gender composition of these automotive design teams. Do you have a background in this or is it something you have heard about second hand?
    According to treeleaf, Ford didn’t have any women on its design team and therefore the men had to dress in women’s clothing and load dolls into cars. I agree that it would have made more sense to have had women (instead of men) lifting those dolls because of gender differences in strength and height. Is this the best illustration of gender diversity among engineers that we can come up with? Frankly, I don’t think that this was what the former NAE president had in mind when he said,
    “[a]t a fundamental level, men, women, ethnic minorities, racial minorities, and people with handicaps, experience the world differently. Those differences in experience are the “gene pool” from which creativity springs.
    Since the products and processes we create are limited by the life experiences of the workforce, the best solution–the elegant solution–may never be considered because of that lack [of diversity].”

  16. October 11, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    Herb, the royal “we” is amusing.

  17. Becca
    October 11, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    I’m a former homeschooler (who choose to be unschooled, btw) who is now pursuing a career in science, and I’d just like to say I find this very interesting.
    I won’t bother defending homeschooling against the “socially maladjusted” sterotype, in part because Karen has already pointed out that such biased thinking isn’t very productive. Although in my own experience, one good reason for homeschooling is that it works out ok for those that were reasonably bright but not so great at social skills.
    I think that- “So, again, if they’re already brighter then they shouldn’t need any additional encouragement to enter a technically challenging field.”- is utter nonesense. First, because you do not optimize your engineering by not encouraging your best minds.
    Secondly, homeschoolers may indeed face some challenges in entering engineering. I know from experience it can be challenging to educate yourself when it comes to science, and I suspect that holds for engineering too. Scienceblogs is fantastic and everything, and there are a ton of great resources out there but in my (fairly typical, in this respect) situation, the easiest way to get actual lab science was to take regular classes (in my case, at the local community college).
    Thirdly, you can consider the impact of the scholarship not as a “reward for special people” but as a strategic means of applying funds. On a related note, I personally would consider setting up a scholarship for former homeschoolers in evolutionary biology, simply in an effort to subvert the homeschooling community and hopefully getting them to embrace proper biology education.

  18. October 12, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Thirdly, you can consider the impact of the scholarship not as a “reward for special people” but as a strategic means of applying funds.
    Yes, Becca, this is my point exactly. (The “special people” phrase comes from Chem Blog, from another post that spawned this whole topic.) Engineering schools (as well as science departments) can, and probably should, choose to use their scholarship money strategically, to attract to their disciplines talented individuals from groups that may not normally be looking at them. This is how athletic scholarships are used and nobody seems to have a problem with that! And, I suspect that people like Roger Clegg (or Herb, up above) are not going to get all huffy and organize a protest about scholarships for homeschooled students. They will find that perfectly acceptable because it will not push any of their prejudice buttons.
    But let someone try to use scholarship money to attract students from underrepresented groups that can be identified on the basis of race or sex and watch the fur fly!

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