First, a bit of self-mythologizing: I’ve known that I wanted to be an engineer since I was 8 years old. I wish I could say that I was a young Lewis Latimer or Garrett Morgan, blessed with a spirit of innovation and inventing things throughout childhood, but this was not the case.
My origin is more from pop culture than early genius. First, I was infatuated with the old “Transformers” TV show and toys. Beyond enjoying the internecine warfare between Autobots and Decepticons, I often found myself asking: How could you create a living robot? Would it eat, sleep, poop? (Again, I was a little boy.) I didn’t know it then, but these were early, poorly formed engineering design questions.
My other engineering inspiration came courtesy of Dwayne Wayne from another TV show, “A Different World.” Played by esteemed actor Kadeem Hardison, Dwayne navigated through academics and relationships at the fictional Hillman College from a first-year student through becoming a professor at his alma mater. Dwayne was a glasses-wearing skinny Black kid like me, although his signature flip-up shades were much more stylish than my face-obscuring specs. He liked math, like me, and majored in engineering. To me he exuded cool and I wanted to be an engineer like him.
I didn’t know it then, but the Transformers and Dwayne Wayne were helping me form my engineering identity. Identity, particularly within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), is the notion of seeing oneself as part of, and a contributor to, the STEM community. It was fortuitous for me and my burgeoning identity that the TV characters I admired aligned with a decent aptitude for math, science and logical thinking. My STEM identity only became stronger as I progressed through my studies, functioning as a North Star for my academic and professional pursuits. My engineering identity also served as a seawall against the inevitable and erosive tides of failure. When I bombed my first Signals and Systems exam as an undergrad: I am an engineer. When my senior design project went down in flames: I am an engineer. When I receive negative feedback on a manuscript or grant proposal: I am an engineer.
Identity formation, especially throughout the K-12 years, is a critical part of students pursuing and persisting with STEM. It is particularly formative for those traditionally underrepresented — women, minorities, and first-generation or economically disadvantaged students — to envision themselves as STEM people. This need motivated me to create the Outreach Design Education (ODE) program, which promotes STEM identity formation in middle and high school students by exposing them to engineering design so they can be the drivers of innovation. We do this through Design Hackathons for middle school students, a Summer Design Camp for high school students, and by developing engineering design curricula with teachers so they can teach design in their home schools.
Beyond engineering and STEM identity, I believe we all have the opportunity, and perhaps the mandate, to help young people form identity. We can share our knowledge and expertise to help develop the next diverse and inclusive generation of engineers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, medical professionals, politicians … whatever! Share what you are to help young people see themselves in these roles someday.
For me, identity has made a world of difference. Thank you, Dwayne Wayne and Optimus Prime.
Aaron Kyle is a professor of the practice in Duke’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and is director of the department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiatives as well as director and lead instructor for the Outreach Design Education program.