New summer research program focuses on how we educate engineers
Above: ASU Assistant Professor Brooke Coley is launching a new undergraduate research experience to expand awareness of engineering education and diversify talent within the field. Graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU
Compared to traditional engineering disciplines — such as electrical, mechanical, chemical and computer — the field of engineering education has a low profile.
“I certainly wasn’t aware of it as a student,” says Brooke Coley, an assistant professor of engineering at The Polytechnic School, one of the six Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. “My academic background is in biomechanics or the science of slips, trips and falls. But I was introduced to engineering education as an area of research during a postdoctoral policy fellowship at the National Science Foundation, and what I discovered was immediately compelling.”
Engineering education, with an emphasis on social justice, is now the focus of Coley’s career. The field’s research initiatives range across domains including theoretical frameworks for learning, educational technology, assessment, recruitment and retention, professional practice and more. Coley says this research is important because it shapes and supports the training and development of better engineers.
“And while many current faculty members in engineering education, like me, found the field through serendipity,” Coley says, “there is a strong likelihood that numbers of today’s students will find value in exploring this discipline and consider it as an option for graduate school and ultimately as a career. So, it’s imperative that we provide early opportunities for student exposure and experience rather than relying on chance.”
Toward that end, Coley has been awarded a three-year National Science Foundation grant to launch a new research experience for undergraduates, or REU. The primary goal of this annual, summer-long program — called Establishing New Generations of Scholars to Amplify and Grow Engineering Education, or ENGagED — is to cultivate a diverse talent pool of new engineering education researchers while promoting the visibility of the field.
“This ENGagED REU also has the potential to attract more students to pursue engineering graduate studies in a way that traditional engineering fields may not,” Coley says. “Rather than solving concrete technical problems in a laboratory, this discipline integrates approaches from social behavioral sciences and processes from traditional engineering environments to evaluate and enhance the entire enterprise of engineering. In such, the work aims to shift engineering environments away from monolithic ways of doing in order to establish more inclusive and just practices while also serving to help diversify our professional community.”
For example, it could be a valuable means to recruit people from populations currently underrepresented in engineering. Coley points out that Black and Latinx people make up less than 4% of university graduate students across all engineering disciplines. Consequently, the ENGagED program is seeking to recruit at least 75% of its undergraduates from the Black and Latinx communities, from both four-year and two-year institutions, and ideally with gender parity across the group.
The inaugural session of the 10-week ENGagED REU is scheduled from May 17 to July 30, 2021. It will be led by Coley and Denise R. Simmons, an associate professor of civil engineering at the University of Florida and a co-principal investigator on the NSF grant. Ten undergraduate students from across the United States will be compensated $6,000 each to participate virtually, working in cohorts of two people. Each cohort will be led by a faculty member and a graduate student who will collaboratively supervise and mentor the undergraduate cohort pair through an engineering education research project.
In addition to the faculty who are leading the research cohorts, Coley and Simmons have assembled a regionally and topically diverse group of engineering education researchers — known as the Faculty Scholars Network — to engage with the REU students through formal instruction, interactive seminars and informal support.
“With regard to these faculty members, we combed the country with intention to expose the REU students to expert researchers representing a breadth of subject areas and methodological approaches in our field,” Coley says. “They will conduct seminars presenting their research, but perhaps more significantly for the participants, they will dialogue with the students about the story behind their research, including the process of developing their professional interests, navigating challenges and unanticipated outcomes, and thriving professionally as an underrepresented person in engineering. We really want to humanize these faculty scholars in the eyes of the students and give them access to different stories because there are myriad pathways to engineering education.”
Coley says these personal interactions will be particularly meaningful because she believes there is tremendous value in establishing a network that truly mentors, develops and supports these students to positively impact their career decisions.
“Independent of the direction they ultimately pursue, this experience will serve students well in any future engineering capacity,” Coley says. “ENGagED will provide a comprehensive foundation that has the ability to grow student interest in engineering education research while transforming the field itself.”