Erin A. Cech – 2019 Sterling Olmstead Award Winner

Sterling Olmstead Award
Liberal Education/Engineering and Society Division
American Society for Engineering Education

Dr. Erin A. Cech

Dr. Erin A. Cech is an ideal nominee for the Sterling Olmstead Award. Dr. Cech is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, yet in a short time she has made tremendous impacts on engineering education. Holding an M.A. (2008) and a Ph.D. (2011) in sociology from the University of California, San Diego, and B.S. degrees in both electrical engineering and sociology, her scholarship has shaped the development and teaching of liberal arts in engineering education in crucial ways. Dr. Cech’s areas of specialization include social  inequalities, sociology of gender, cultural sociology, LGBTQ inequality, occupations and professions, science and technology studies, and mixed methods. These areas of specialization have led her to address several salient questions directly relevant to LEES scholars and instructors, leading to significant, substantive findings. Although many examples of groundbreaking work are possible, three major research contributions are relevant here: (1) why women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs? (2) expanding the research on the experiences of women and minority students to include the experiences of LGBTQ students, and (3) whether the U.S. engineering education system encourages neophytes to take seriously their
professional responsibility to public welfare.

Her groundbreaking work has helped to further rupture the antiquated (yet still articulated) notion that engineering education occurs in a vaccum and that broader social forces and engineering culture do not shape how students experience engineering education. Her work also revealed that students’ interest in public welfare concerns may actually decline over the course of their
engineering education, a finding that alarmed many engineering educators and raised our awareness of the implicit messages conveyed by the engineering curriculum.

From these three research contributions and from her entire body of work, Dr. Cech presents evidence of an extremely promising scholar who has marshalled compelling data to answer crucial research questions. Among other impact, her scholarship has poked holes in the ideology of technical-social dualism—the notion that the technical and social dimensions of engineering problems
can and should be separated and that the technical matters much more than the social. Collapsing that dualism via diverse research data has been one of her principal contributions to LEES. In addition, Dr. Cech has been a force in LEES, consistently bringing in hew students and faculty and serving as secretary-treasurer of our division.

If we are looking for someone who has made “distinguished contributions to the development and teaching of liberal arts in engineering education” and whose work has helped establish “the connectedness between the technical and non-technical dimensions of engineering work,” Dr. Cech’s overall contributions have, collectively, provided a convincing case. To recognize her
positive influence on LEES, we are proud to present her with the Sterling Olmsted Award.