Why should aspiring scientists, technologists, and engineers study race?

Professor Erica King-Toler has important answers

Erica King-Toler and her husband

Erica King-Toler, adjunct professor in the Technology, Culture and Society department (right) and her husband, Herbert Toler, Jr., who designed the Invention of Race course that she now teaches.

Students new to Tandon may be surprised to see courses called “The Invention of Race” and “Race & Digital Platforms” being offered as electives. What does race have to do, after all, with the reasons most decided to attend engineering school: to learn to develop useful software programs, design innovative biomedical devices, increase the sustainability of our energy systems, or contribute in some way to improving the planet.

“Technological products and processes should be as accessible and inclusive as possible, and that requires technologists who are aware of how discrimination and bias can impact their work,” explains Erica King-Toler, adjunct professor in the Technology, Culture and Society department. “Students who study race as it applies to their fields gain that awareness and consciousness.”

She points to the recent flurry of attention given in some circles to the ethical use of artificial intelligence — as well as to a growing recognition that the automated systems now being used by courts to decide who gets parole, banks to decide who gets loans, and companies to decide who wins a job interview are subject to the very same pitfalls as human parole boards, bankers, and employers. “AI systems have to be trained by inputting data, and if the programmers creating the system’s algorithms are unaware that the data they are using might be skewed, they are not going to be able to create fair or effective systems,” she asserts. News stories about medical imaging systems that can’t accurately diagnose skin cancer in black patients or court-based systems that mistakenly flag large numbers of black defendants as possible recidivists bear out that assertion.

King-Toler — who holds a doctoral degree in counseling psychology and is also on the faculty of CUNY’s John Jay College — just recently began teaching at Tandon; if her name sounds somewhat familiar that’s because her husband, the noted historian Herbert Toler, Jr., designed the Invention of Race course and taught it for several years. She stepped in after he signed on as a visiting professor at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia, making it impractical to teach in Brooklyn with any regularity. “We wanted to ensure that the course was still offered at Tandon, because it’s important that the next generation of scientists, technologists, and engineers understands these issues and develops a solid set of core values around them,” she says. “There’s a very human component to the issues presented in these fields, and Tandon graduates will be prepared to address those issues.”