Biomedical engineering student Alexander Silva saw a need to fill in the engineering department at Cal Poly and did just that.

Silva set to work, sending an email to the biomedical engineering department at Cal Poly with the subject line “Addressing racism and discrimination in engineering” linking to resources about discussing race and marginalized groups in the realm of biomedical engineering. Then, Silva took it a step further, and they asked if any professors wanted to be involved in bringing these discussions into their classrooms.

As a queer person of color at Cal Poly, Silva said they were always a minority who had trouble relating to the curriculum as well as other students in his classes.

“I never saw myself in the classroom,” Silva said.

Silva made a facilitator guide to help professors and lecturers help lead discussions on uncomfortable topics and worked with biomedical engineering professors to implement these conversations into the classroom. One of these professors, Trevor Cardinal, had Alexander facilitate discussions in his physiology class. 

Cardinal’s class was largely data-driven. For a project he worked on with Silva, the class discussed how diabetes was affecting Latin, Black and indigenous communities at significantly higher rates than white and Asian populations in the U.S. 

“It provided a really very logical segue right into, well, this is getting really bad, but it’s not getting bad for everybody in the same way,” Cardinal said.

Cardinal said a goal for Silva’s program would be to have it woven into the curriculum of his classes rather than have it be seen as a separate issue from biomedical engineering.

“Everything about engineering is trying to find solutions and trying to address problems,” Silva said. “These are problems that I think engineers could start addressing by including them in their conversations.”

Silva started working on this curriculum after taking a class with biomedical engineering lecturer Sara Della Ripa, who taught a class that focused on maternity health. According to Ripa, maternity health is another largely overlooked field of study in medicine. Ripa said her class put a focus on the gaps for specific groups that are left behind by medicine.

“Engineers, I really really believe … are problem solvers,” Ripa said. “In order to be problem solvers we have to understand the whole problem.”

Ripa said that having Silva in her class made her realize the importance of discussing the racist history of certain policies in the biomedical engineering field.

Silva said they want to see a change in STEM curriculum as a whole — a curriculum that continuously discusses issues of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination that plague the healthcare system and go unaddressed for so long. 

Silva said that the degree of technical rigor that is demanded of Cal Poly students as well as the motto of “Learn by doing” promotes a “one-track mindset” that leads students and faculty to believe that social issues concerning race, sexuality and marginalized groups do not have a place in the STEM classroom. However, if students and faculty are willing to have such conversations, they are often unsure of where to start, Silva said.

Silva said they came into Cal Poly feeling like they did not belong because they did not enter his major with as much knowledge about engineering as his peers. However, Silva said they were more familiar with challenges in the biomedical engineering field that often go unaddressed such as rationing medicine, living in a food desert or not having access to transportation.

“Just because you may have different lived experiences doesn’t mean you’re any less qualified as an engineer or that you don’t know this material as well,” Silva said.

Silva said they plan to keep working on this program so that it can be worked into more biomedical engineering classrooms.

“I want to make it so that everyone who comes after me, has the ability to experience the sense of freedom that I got from being myself in a class,” Silva said.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article read that Silva’s project was largely related to Black Lives Matter protests. The article has been updated to more accurately reflect Silva’s intent behind the project. The previous version of this article also used he/him pronouns in reference to Silva, but Silva uses they/them pronouns. Their pronouns have been changed.

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