NSF Supports New Mentoring Initiative for Underrepresented Minority Faculty

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $300,000 grant to a multi-university team that will explore ways of utilizing emeriti and retired engineering professors to support expanded mentoring and advocacy networking opportunities for underrepresented minority (URM) engineering faculty.

The two-year pilot program, known as Increasing Minority Presence within Academia through Continuous Training (IMPACT), seeks to create a synergistic pairing of these two sets of stakeholders through mutual professional interests and technical expertise. Led by the Georgia Institute of Technology, the project is funded under the NSF’s Inclusion Across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science (INCLUDES) program.

“This project has the potential to impact the engineering faculty ecosystem by demonstrating a new method to support and engage diverse engineering faculty through retired and emeriti faculty who may have preceded them in their chosen field of study,” said Comas Haynes, a principal research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and principal investigator for the project. “The initiative will provide opportunities for underrepresented minorities to gain access to the insights, greater discretionary time and, as appropriate, the extensive contacts developed by the more senior engineering faculty over the course of their careers.”

Beyond facilitating the mentoring opportunities, the project will assess the results of the interactions and the ways in which the URM faculty and emeriti faculty experience the opportunities afforded by the project. Further, the investigators plan to collect data to examine how project participants perceive and experience conventional and direct communications – telephone calls, email, and in-person meetings – versus the use of technology-focused embodied conversational agents, interface agents that engage a user in real-time dialogue by using verbal-nonverbal channels to emulate the in-person experience.

“This project has the potential to broaden participation in the engineering professoriate and opens up new possibilities for supporting URM engineering faculty,” Haynes added.

In addition to Haynes, the IMPACT project will include Georgia Tech co-PI Rosario Gerhardt (Professor, School of Materials Science and Engineering); University of Colorado, Colorado Springs co-PIs Valerie Martin Conley (Dean, College of Education) and Sylvia Mendez (Associate Professor, College of Education); and Morehouse College’s co-PI Kinnis Gosha (Assistant Professor, Computer Science). The project is among 27 new awards made by the NSF INCLUDES program aimed at enhancing U.S. leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) discoveries and innovations through a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

“Broadening participation in STEM is necessary for the United States to retain its position as the world’s preeminent source of scientific innovation,” said NSF Director France Córdova. “The National Science Foundation has a long history of working to address difficult challenges by creating the space for inventive solutions. NSF INCLUDES breaks new ground by providing a sustained commitment to collaborative change with the goal of bringing STEM opportunities to more people and communities across the country.”

Underrepresented minorities (URMs) are less than 10 percent of engineering faculty, despite comprising nearly a third of the nation's population. A common explanation for their disproportionate representation, at the engineering faculty level, is related to a lack of access to effective mentorship from other faculty.

A previously-funded rendition of IMPACT involved seven Georgia Tech emeriti engineering faculty mentoring eleven URM engineering faculty from different engineering institutions; it found that mentor-mentee pairing was viewed favorably by both parties and was beneficial, particularly for the URM engineering faculty. Because of these results, the investigators proposed to scale, test and evaluate the approach on a broader scale by creating national infrastructural network partners to help increase capacity to serve a greater number of URM engineering faculty and to introduce tele-mentoring and training models to serve URM faculty who work in remote geographical locations with very little access to mentors.

NSF INCLUDES is designed to create paths to STEM for underrepresented populations, expanding the nation’s leadership and talent pools. Like other programs in NSF’s Broadening Participation portfolio, NSF INCLUDES seeks to improve the U.S. STEM enterprise by leveraging the benefits of diversity. The program is among NSF’s “10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments,” research agendas that identify areas for future investment at the frontiers of science and engineering.

The 27 new Design and Development Launch Pilots, funded through two-year, $300,000 grants, will develop blueprints for collaborative change among institutions and organizations to address broadening participation challenges. A key feature of NSF INCLUDES is its focus on uniting a wide variety of collaborators to generate pioneering solutions to persistent problems. These pilot programs will create an infrastructure that enables collaboration, fueling future innovations in broadening STEM participation.

The NSF INCLUDES approach builds on a growing body of scientific research suggesting that complex problems are best addressed through collective impact or networked communities focused on finding solutions through common goals and shared resources. This strategy marks a shift from successful but locally focused efforts toward impact at a national scale as institutions, professional societies and the scientific community cooperate and share information and effective strategies.

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