Spotlight on Liz Thompson: Professor shares insights on mentoring, sewing and inspiring culture change  

Professor stands next to white board
General Engineering Program Director and industrial engineering Professor Lizabeth Thompson was named one of two national recipients of the Distinguished Engineering Educator Award from the Society of Women Engineers. She is dedicated to building an educational ecosystem defined by diversity, equity and inclusion.

General Engineering Program Director and industrial engineering Professor Lizabeth Thompson’s 30-year impact at Cal Poly extends far beyond the university’s walls.  

She inspires a dynamic classroom where she engages an increasingly diverse set of students while creating pathways for academically talented undergraduates from low-income backgrounds transferring from neighboring community colleges into Cal Poly.  

For her dedication to building an educational ecosystem defined by diversity, equity and inclusion, the Society of Women Engineers selected Thompson as one of two national recipients of the Distinguished Engineering Educator Award. She will be honored during the organization’s annual conference in October.  

To commemorate the accomplishment, we connected with Thompson to learn more about her insights, influences and interests. 

How can engineering education institutions like Cal Poly foster an environment that empowers women to thrive in their engineering careers? 

Because engineering has traditionally been oriented toward those who have been socialized as men, with an emphasis on military, competition and individual work, many of us who have been socialized as women find the culture doesn’t fit our passions and ways of being. I think everyone in engineering needs to practice self-reflection to make sure our culture is attractive to all. I believe Cal Poly is doing a good job at shifting to a community that welcomes a variety of people regardless of their gender identity, but deep, cultural change takes vigilance and commitment. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” as we are apt to say about culture change. 

What strategies have you found effective in encouraging and supporting young women to pursue engineering as a career choice? 

Although I talk about culture change, the things we can do actually are simple but not easy. Here are some examples of strategies I employ in the classroom:  

  • I use she or they pronouns in examples; 
  • I describe engineering problems within a traditionally gendered situation, like sewing or cooking instead of automobiles and machining; 
  • I do not set up any competitions in class; and  
  • I facilitate deep discussions, even in technical classes, about the role of engineering in solving the biggest problems on the planet.

Outside the classroom, I am working on a job advertisement for a new faculty member. We are examining the words we use to describe the job, so we don’t perpetuate stereotypes with our language. There are some great online resources for this, including Gender Decoder. Small things can make a big difference. 

How do you envision the engineering landscape evolving as gender parity becomes more of a reality? What positive changes can we expect? 

I do dream of a day when we all are accepted for our gifts. I think it would be great if women did not have to always overachieve to be accepted as equal. A funny meme I’ve seen is: “We will all know that women are equal to men when we see mediocre women at the top.” 

Can you share a story of a mentor or role model who has significantly impacted your own journey in engineering? 

This will make me cry, but when I was a student at Cal Poly in fall 1976, JoAnne Freeman was a professor and later a department chair. Although this was during a time when I was told women can do anything, she was the person who was a symbol of this for me. She also hired me as a lecturer in 1993. 

How does it feel to be recognized by SWE for your contributions? What message would you like to send to the next generation of aspiring women engineers? 

I am so very honored for this recognition. There are so many people who have helped me through the years in some way, this award is for all of them: my students who reminded me that we are all learners; my colleagues who challenge me to think differently and work hard; and my teachers over the years who saw in me something I didn’t even know existed. 

I hope that I have blazed a bit of a trail so that the path for the next generation of women behind me will be a little easier. My hope is that women can be their authentic self, as this is the only thing worth being. 

What advice would you give to young women considering a career in engineering but may have concerns about the challenges they could face? 

Being an engineer has defined me in a way that I will always value. Through engineering, I have had the confidence to know that I could support myself and that I didn’t need anyone else to “take care of me.” I love the technology and the innovation I see all around me in engineering. I believe the planet needs these smart, innovative and hardworking people to solve the challenges in our future.  

If you could collaborate with any historical figure, living or not, on an engineering project, who would it be and why? 

I would like to work with Maya Angelou on an engineering project, as I believe engineering needs a more beautiful narrative that is artistic and human. As a Black woman, she had to develop a strength that was certain and loving; I think engineering needs more of that. 

What’s the most unusual or unexpected skill or hobby you have that people might not associate with your engineering background? 

I love to sew and do traditional needlework, along with quilting and embroidery. There are many parallels between sewing and machining, and I’ve often wanted to explore sewing as an outreach activity for engineering. I also play the cello, but not very well. 

Do you have a favorite engineering-related book, movie or TV show that you’d recommend to others? 

I am a geek for automation and love the old TV show “How It’s Made.” 

What’s the most unexpected or quirky place you’ve found inspiration for an engineering project or problem-solving? 

When I was working as an engineer, I was tasked with creating a simulation mode (computer program). I got most of it done, but I couldn’t figure out how to code a certain process. I tried all day to make it work and was still thinking about how to solve the problem as I was falling asleep that night. I dreamed about it and in my dream, I found the solution. In the morning, I used that solution and it worked! It was such a strange experience to work on the problem in my dream.