JEDI Scholars Whitt and DeTurris Advancing Diversity, Inclusion in College 

A panel of student leaders from College of Engineering clubs participate in the 7th annual Social Justice Teach In as part of the Engineering Track JEDI Scholar Dianne DeTurris developed. More than 30 attendees, including both students and faculty, learned from the panel about the challenges and opportunities faced by students with diverse backgrounds and identities as they seek to thrive in engineering. The panel included, from left, presenter Zoe Wood, associate dean of diversity and student success; Leticia Mezzetti from Color Coded and SHPE; Derek Russell from NSBE; Laura Camacho from WISH; Hardit Singh and Mont Murad, both from PROVE.

Two professors have embraced a vision for the College of Engineering that includes a more diverse set of students learning in an inclusive environment from professors who have woven ideas of equity and social justice into their curriculum.  

They are now helping the college realize that vision in the second year of the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Faculty Scholar program, funded through the Dean’s Club for Innovation.  

This year’s scholars include Michael Whitt from Biomedical Engineering and Dianne DeTurris from Aerospace Engineering, who were tapped to develop, implement and lead strategic actions around JEDI topics.  

“With the JEDI Scholar Program, the College of Engineering empowers faculty to dedicate time and energy to outreach, research, guidance and other efforts to develop and support a more inclusive culture in the college as a whole,” said Zoë Wood, associate dean for diversity and student success. “This dedicated time is essential and valuable for such complex and important work.” 

Whitt and DeTurris are working diligently on creative initiatives designed to draw more diverse students and faculty to the college while enhancing the learning environment to ensure they stay and thrive.  

Michael Whitt 

Professor Michael Whitt welcomes Black high school students visiting Cal Poly for the United by Excellence: Paving the Road to Higher Education college-readiness event on Friday, Feb. 3. Whitt hosted a Learn by Doing breakout workshop about cardiovascular disease during the event.  

Whitt, a biomedical engineering professor who holds five medical device patents and a master’s degree in business, was named JEDI Scholar with a focus on recruiting students from underrepresented groups and ensuring they choose Cal Poly once accepted.  

Whitt’s primary focus is on Black communities, he said, with an overarching goal of increasing diversity at the university to match the demographics of the state.  

“The more people that you get into this learning environment, the more perspectives and ideas you get,” said Whitt, who has taught at Cal Poly for nine years. “Ultimately, that makes us all better.” 

Whitt believes the key to attracting more diverse students is entering their communities.  

“Those students aren’t necessarily going to come to us, so we have to go to them,” he said. “We have to show them that Cal Poly’s leadership is committed to diversity.”  

Whitt believes Cal Poly is uniquely positioned to enter a variety of spaces because of its Learn by Doing approach, which bridges the classroom and community.  

One such space is a classroom at Da Vinci Science High School in El Segundo, where a group of biomedical engineering students from Cal Poly have teamed up with a group of high schoolers to find a solution to a medical problem.  

The high school students were asked to present a problem – in this case pelvic pain associated with menstruation – and the senior project team was tasked with developing a product that could be approved by the Food and Drug Administration.  

The two groups meet regularly over Zoom, where engineering students outline their process and share their findings with high schoolers seeing Learn by Doing in action.  

While the product is under development, Whitt believes their solution is better than what’s on the market and could be a game changer.  

“It’s neat to see how the high school kids are benefiting and how the Cal Poly students have been such great teachers for them,” he added. “The product they develop could also generate equity for scholarships that could benefit students in that community.”  

Whitt aims to identify more target schools in or outside the state while recruiting more faculty members at Cal Poly to shepherd new collaborations. His goal is to enlist 10 faculty members, with more projects launching in the fall.  

“Cal Poly is the perfect place to launch these partnerships. We have really smart students who graduate with jobs, but we can always get better. What if we could have an even bigger impact?” Whitt asked. 

Dianne DeTurris 

Aerospace engineering professor Dianne DeTurris participated in a discussion with colleagues at a JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) community lunch on 10/26/22.

DeTurris, who holds three aerospace engineering degrees, wants to foster more chances for her peers within the college to develop their understanding of equity and inclusion in education.  

“We can all learn together,” said DeTurris who is serving as Associate JEDI Scholar with a focus on faculty skills development. “If I say there’s a problem or try to fix it, it doesn’t work, but what does work is providing opportunities where people can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.” 

DeTurris helped set up an engineering track for the annual Social Justice Teach In – a daylong series of talks and workshops centered around equity and social justice – for the first time this year.  

She’s long been passionate about forging new paths, as she was the first woman hired in 1998 to teach in the Aerospace Engineering Department, 71 years after it was established.  

“I couldn’t even talk about changing the infrastructure when I got here. If I felt unfairly treated, it was perceived as being my fault,” she said. “It is great to now have support for JEDI work within the college.” 

Another professor might have quit, she said, but perseverance is her strength. “Not quitting is winning,” she added. 

Over time, DeTurris said changes to policies and culture have helped lay down a foundation to support a more diverse faculty and student population.  

Increasing the faculty’s number of women and others from underrepresented groups is vital, she said, but retaining them is equally important.  

“We have to give them a good experience when they get here,” she explained. “My goal is to create more oases throughout the college where diversity is celebrated.”  

In her college leadership role, DeTurris is also hosting Innovate Engineering Education fairs to help professors decide how their semester course learning goals relate to the college’s strategic plan, including DEI topics, as part of the course proposal process for the new semester system starting in fall 2026.  

Some professors are challenged to integrate into their course proposals ideas around inclusive teaching and curriculum threads such as sustainability or systems thinking, for example, so she’s highlighting such concepts during the education fairs that will continue this quarter.  

Additionally, DeTurris is organizing workshops for club leaders so they can lead discussions about diversity with their members and inviting speakers to highlight social justice initiatives.  

“People have to hear an idea many, many times before they change their paradigm,” she said, “so talking about equity and diversity is a process, not an event. But the more we can expose people to those ideas, the better for all of us.”  

To support programs like the JEDI Scholars, give today to the Dean’s Club for Innovation.

By Emily Slater