Professor Elizabeth Croft
Monash’s new Dean of Engineering nearly missed her calling. As a child in Canada she planned to follow her parents into medicine until an engineer friend of the family opened her mind to the functional creativity of engineering. She’s now redefining her discipline via world-leading research into human-robot interaction and championing gender diversity.
“Our family friend was a professor of mechanical engineering, and he would always speak to me as an adult,” Professor Croft recalls. He explained what engineers did and why it mattered, and showed her plans of the 767 jet engines he was working on. “I didn’t know engineers drew,” she concedes. “I didn’t know what they did.” But once she did, she was hooked. Now it’s Professor Croft who explains engineering and its mission to young people. “It’s about creativity meets maths, physics and science,” she says, “bringing these pieces together to make things that work for people.”
Professor Croft studied engineering at university in Vancouver (with only a few other women in most classes). As a graduate she worked in motor accident investigation. “It was dynamics in action,” she says. “’How did this happen?’ I loved solving that puzzle.” A scholarship for post-graduate studies and a keen interest in mechanical engineering and computing led her into the then-burgeoning fields of industrial robotics and Artificial Intelligence. “Most recently, I’ve focused on human-robot interaction, which is the most fun stuff in the world because it’s a mix of engineering, psychology, human factors and design,” she enthuses. “I truly enjoy the many opportunities to work with colleagues from around the world to develop this fast growing and exciting research area.”
Diversity is central to the appeal. “It’s very interdisciplinary,” Professor Croft says. “I hang out with people in human kinetics and psychology and computer science. I have PhD students working in robot ethics, which relates to the ground rules of programming autonomous systems. It’s very creative, and I think that creativity drives the future of engineering. Think about how people love their cell phone; because it’s a beautifully engineered piece of very functional equipment. Creative and purposeful design is the real art of engineering.”
Professor Croft describes Monash as a fabulous, world-class university, and she’s excited by the opportunities she sees for interdisciplinary collaboration. “At a comprehensive university like Monash, where you have design and architecture, a strong Faculty of Arts, an incredible Medicine Faculty, and of course, a very strong Engineering Faculty, we have all the pieces to bring together,” she says. “And of course I love to argue that engineering is the heart and soul of the modern research university.”
Although gender diversity has increased dramatically and is now at 50 percent at universities like MIT, Professor Croft says winning the hearts and minds of girls as young as grade six means also convincing key influencers like teachers and parents, particularly dads. Supporting female engineers through university means providing the encouragement and inclusiveness required for them to succeed in traditionally male dominated disciplines. “We have to rebrand because in many places our profession still carries the look and feel of a locker room,” Professor Croft says. “We need to promote engineering as a welcoming, creative space, open to everyone, where everybody is encouraged to contribute and everyone is valued for those contributions.”
“It’s not that we need to re-program the girls. We need to re-think how we invite them in. All the data shows that teams where you have diversity are the most successful. When you bring different viewpoints together, in any team, you’ll get a better outcome.”