Improving equity in engineering to benefit everyone

05 September 2023

UC’s first female Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering has been recognised for her trailblazing work to transform engineering education for greater diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4 - Quality Education.

Te Whare Wānanga o Waitaha | University of Canterbury (UC) Professor Philippa Martin has been recognised with a national teaching award from Ako Aotearoa, it was announced today.

Professor Martin has worked to transform the learning environment of a traditionally male-dominated faculty and discipline, towards one that strives to be free of discrimination, marginalisation and gender bias. She is one of eleven tertiary teachers and groups nationwide who will receive Te Whatu Kairangi – Aotearoa Tertiary Educator Awards at the end of September.

Having been a student and educator in engineering for 30 years, she was aware of the difficult learning and teaching environment. However, it was a conversation about harassment with one of her students that sparked Professor Martin’s interest in researching diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Professor Martin says engineers create solutions that benefit people in a changing world, but that benefit privileges those doing the designing. Engineers cannot see different perspectives and therefore a diverse engineering workforce is vital to achieve more equitable outcomes for all.

“I could see that, to affect this change, we needed to change the culture of first-year engineering education. My vision was that our first-year students would go on to become tutors, mentors and professional engineers who would radiate a different set of values around inclusion,” she says.

Her passion and perseverance have shifted a culture previously known for inequity and imbalance to becoming a model for others.

"Over the past few years, it has become so clear how important belonging and community is to our well-being.  When I walk through the engineering precinct, and I see peer mentoring groups gathering together that brings a smile to my face. Setting up a program that lives and thrives beyond me, is really amazing,” she says.

“I'm hoping this mahi getting some attention will inspire others to tackle the hard culture issues and make education more accessible and inclusive. If we all take small steps towards this, then over time we will make a difference.”

Professor Martin was the inaugural Dean of Engineering (First Year), a role specifically designed to help students transition from high school into engineering at University, and only the female engineer to be promoted to the rank of professor in over 130 years of engineering at UC.

Described by her colleagues as an inspiring role model and mentor for engineering students, Professor Martin has actively advocated for inclusion of under-represented groups in engineering. Her goal is that a more diverse learning community with a sense of belonging will lead to a more diverse engineering workforce.

“Philippa’s contributions and leadership in the areas of culture for both students and staff, inclusivity, and student experience have had an incredibly positive and ongoing influence on student success and wellbeing,” Former Head of Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Professor Paul Gaynor says

Her research interests span from the maths heavy field of wireless communications (including 5G and 6G communications), through to engineering education and diversity, equity and inclusion.

Through strong leadership, partnerships, collaboration, and sheer courage, she has created a series of initiatives at UC to transform the engineering education culture so all students can belong and succeed. One of these initiatives is the student-led, faculty-enabled peer mentoring programme ENGME!

“Because Philippa has a holistic view towards education, students thrive under her guidance,” former Pro-Vice-Chancellor Engineering Professor Jan Evans-Freeman, now UC’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Sustainability, says.

Te Whatu Kairangi Awards celebrate outstanding tertiary educators who are making a difference to learners, their whānau and communities.

“I still can't believe it. It is very exciting. I never did this work for an award and most certainly didn't do it alone. I'm very grateful for the hundreds of staff and student leaders who joined me on this journey. We did it because we could see non-majority students were still having a tough time training to become engineers due to on-going culture issues in engineering education. However, we also had a vision of what engineering education could be and together we brought that vision to life,” Professor Martin says.

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