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West Virginia University researchers receive NSF funding to support student diversity in engineering and computer science

Photo of Karen Rambo-Hernandez, Melissa Morris and Robin Hensel

Karen Rambo-Hernandez, Melissa Morris and Robin Hensel

West Virginia University researchers have been awarded a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to improve classroom experiences for engineering and computer science students.

Morgantown, WV—

The project, which aims to continue an initiative that fosters inclusion among engineers and computer scientists, is a collaboration including scholars from the College of Education and Human Services, the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, the College of Creative Arts and the WVU ADVANCE Center.

“The overarching purpose is that we want to develop inclusive professional identities in our students,” said Karen Rambo-Hernandez, an assistant professor at the WVU College of Education and Human Services and the project’s principal investigator. “Engineers and computer scientists who possess this inclusive professional identity are excellent in their technical skills, recognize the need for diversity within their field, and behave in ways that welcome people from many different backgrounds.”

Unlike other similar programs for first-year engineering students that focus only on keeping diverse students in engineering, WVU’s program seeks to educate all students about the importance of diversity. In this way, Rambo-Hernandez and her team hope to encourage students from different backgrounds to stay in the field while preparing all students to be productive team members in their future careers.

“We supplement valuable programs that support traditionally underrepresented students by trying to expand and work with all students, so that all students value and behave in ways that make sure the diverse viewpoints are not only present but heard and valued,” Rambo-Hernandez said.

Rambo-Hernandez is joined in this endeavor by colleagues from the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. Her co-principal investigators are Melissa Morris, a teaching associate professor for the freshman engineering program, and Robin Hensel, assistant dean for freshman experience.

Morris and Hensel will help Rambo-Hernandez implement and evaluate classroom activities for first-year engineering students that enhance the students’ abilities to work successfully in teams.

“The purpose of the grant was to design activities for first-year engineering classes to help them behave more inclusively when they’re working within teams and to see that diversity actually improves products and teamwork,” Rambo-Hernandez said.

One of these activities will involve a theatre troupe that comes to the class to perform a skit that demonstrates a dysfunctional team and asks the audience to improve the team’s functionality.

“The students get to intervene and explain what the actors could have done better,” Rambo-Hernandez said.

To alleviate the cost of hiring a professional theatre troupe for this portion of the project, Rambo-Hernandez and her colleagues have enlisted the help of Irene Alby, a teaching assistant professor of acting and directing at the WVU College of Creative Arts. Alby and a group of her students will be trained to act out this performance, which will be followed by a debrief session with trained discussion group leaders from the WVU ADVANCE Center.

As defined in this project, diversity constitutes identities and different ways of thinking and problem-solving that lend to the ultimate success of an engineering project.

“It’s a matter of cognitive diversity and physical diversity,” Rambo-Hernandez said. “Somebody who might look like you but who is raised in a different way is going to bring something unique to the table.”

For the next phase, the researchers are expanding upon their initial work by incorporating additional campuses in the study, adding sophomore- and junior-level engineering courses, and including computer science students.

This project is in collaboration with Christina Paguyo from the University of Denver and KarRebecca Atadero from Colorado State University. Of the $2 million received, WVU will be allotted $750,000 to implement the program in its engineering and computer science courses. The University’s students will benefit from this grant beginning with four courses in the fall of 2017, and the unique activities will expand to all first-year engineering courses in 2018, and sophomore and junior classes in later years of the grant.

“We’re trying to show all of our students that we need them in engineering, and that we’re going to support them in it,” Rambo-Hernandez said.


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