February 25, 2002

C.U. Performers, Academics Gather At Diversity Dinner

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Poets, breakdancers and technology consultants joined faculty, staff and students to create an eclectic evening of entertainment this Saturday at the Fourth Annual Engineering Diversity Dinner. The Engineering Student Council selected performance groups and activities centered around the theme of rhythm and dance this year to celebrate diversity in engineering disciplines as part of National Engineers Week.

“Diversity is not just about opening up opportunities to people of different nationalities, races, ethnicities and genders. By diversifying the talent pool we’re allowing information to flow more efficiently through society. Companies that can embrace and engage diversity have an edge in the global economy,” said keynote speaker Lori A. Perine, founder and CEO of Interpretech, a information technology consulting group.

While Perine stressed the importance of uniting thinkers from various disciplines to innovate new technologies, she also discussed providing access for groups formerly underrepresented in the fields of science, math and engineering.

“The influx of women and underrepresented minorities in the workplace has served as a bridge for people as a whole. The culture of cooperation in the laboratory promotes working with people who have different styles of thinking, to hopefully come up with new ideas,” Perine said.

Engineering students and corporate sponsors who attended the well-received event voiced their support for many of the themes in Perine’s speech.

“Multidisciplinary diversity is extremely important. For example, when you have diverse people working on an engineering project, new ideas and perspectives can be brought together,” said Chris Benyarko ’02, who co-chaired the Dinner.

“An event such as this one allows people like Mrs. Perine, who has a background in government, and others with diverse backgrounds to interact with one another,” said Greg McClure, a recruiter from Raytheon, a corporate sponsor of the dinner. “At Raytheon we have integrated product teams that allow people to come together from a variety of disciplines — electrical and mechanical engineering as well as computer science — to brainstorm and work together on projects in real time,” he said.

Students agreed that the event offered an exciting variety of flavors, entertainment and cultural perspectives.

“I really enjoyed the performances. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen breakdancing. The whole mix, with Caribbean dancers and the drummers, was really cool to see,” said Jinia Bhattacharya, grad, speaking about the performances by the Cornell Caribbean Students Association, Absolute Zero (Cornell’s breakdancing crew), Shimtah, traditional Korean percussionists and Impact, who performed modern ballet and jazz dances.

Multicultural cuisine prepared by Cornell Catering included dishes from Chinese, Spanish, Italian and Mexican menus.

“We hope that no one that comes to this event would have tasted everything that’s on our menu or seen all the performances before,” said Jane H. Lee ’04, co-chair of the Diversity Dinner.

Other students thought that bringing students and faculty together under a common goal was important for building unity in the school of engineering.

“It was a lot of fun. It’s not often that we have the opportunity to bring students and faculty together under un-intimidating circumstances,” said Andrea Leung, grad.

Perine stressed that participating in this event allows her to reconnect with the experienced practitioners of engineering and scientific disciplines as well as meet the student engineers who will be the innovators of tomorrow.

“You are all part of a great enterprise that’s driving change nationally and internationally. You are the producers of knowledge and at the same time you are the supporters of the infrastructures necessary for innovation,” Perine said.

As engineers can anticipate working with more diverse people from a variety of academic disciplines in the years to come, it is becoming necessary for students to breach not only cultural boundaries but also the boundaries between different disciplines, according to Perine.

“Methods of scientific inquiry and research are evolving. It is becoming multidisciplinary and people are not just working in one field. Biologists are working with mathematicians and geneticists are now working more often with computer scientists. It is the very different and distinct types of people from various disciplines who are making science happen,” said Perine in an interview.

Although the technology-driven dot-com boom of the 90’s has ended in a “dot-bomb,” the demand for people with technical training in math, science and engineering is continuing to grow, according to Perine.

“If we are going to meet that demand we are going to need to provide education for the groups that are growing the fastest–the African American community and especially the Hispanic community, which will soon be the largest ethnic group in the United States — and for groups who have advanced in education but not in research and leadership positions — such as women and Asians. We need to make use of valuable resources that will be there in the next few years and nurture this human capital,” Perine said.

As Deputy Associate Director for Technology at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration, Perine helped to initiate programs through the National Science Fund, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Dept. of Defense, the Dept. of Energy and the National Institute of Health which supported scholarships for women and underrepresented minorities in the fields of math, science and engineering technologies. Her goal was to provide access for underrepresented groups to a broader array of academic and research institutions. By stressing equal education opportunities and the social value and economic value of diversifying the workforce, Perine worked with professional organizations to mobilize more women and minority groups.

“The pool of talent out there doesn’t necessarily have access to training. We help to bring those people into the mainstream,” Perine said. “We are trying to encourage more public access to the internet and technology infrastructure through schools and in libraries. In the past five years, leadership in local governments and business has taken up the challenge of implementing public access to the internet,” Perine added.

Now 95 percent of public schools in the nation are connected to internet, she noted.

Perine emphasizes that diversity in the professional workforce is not a simple moral obligation but rather a very practical means of breaching social and economic boundaries in communities to provide greater efficiency and prosperity to all classes and social groups. This type of expansion begins in the classroom and in the laboratory, according to Perine and crosses over to influence the way professionals from different businesses and industries interact with each other.

Perine noted that Interpretech is working on a project with the Social Security Administration (SSA) to implement information technologies such as real-time chats, e-mail, publicly available kiosks and other electronic interfaces to make communication between government agencies and the public more accessible.

“The project is very technically challenging. There is the need to provide and protect data of every person who contacts the SSA while at the same time be able to immediately respond to inquiries or requests. This is a situation in which industries have innovated technologies and the government has an opportunity to learn from them,” Perine said.

Perine returned from Moscow where she attended a forum hosted by the Duma of the Russian Federation and the Union of Internet Operators to address that nation’s concerns of internet security and the advancement of information technologies.

As Perine continues to address diversity and cultural mobility, she will be working with the Native American Tribal Colleges in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the upcoming months. “It will be a collaborative project using digital technologies to help preserve the cultural traditions of different indigenous communities across the world in a way that lets others learn and, when appropriate, interact through a digital interface [with these cultures],” Perine explained.

Archived article by Dan Webb