IDEA Institute awarded NSF grant to promote systemic change in engineering education

10/26/2023 Amber Rose

Written by Amber Rose

Photos of Rashid Bashir, Ellen Wang Althaus, Ashleigh Wright, Lynford Goddard and Jennifer Cromley
From left to right: Rashid Bashir, Ellen Wang Althaus, Ashleigh Wright, Lynford Goddard and Jennifer Cromley

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA) has been awarded an NSF grant to create the Developing Equity-Minded Engineering Practitioners (DEEP) center in collaboration with Morgan State University (MSU), a historically Black college/university (HBCU) in Baltimore, Maryland. This is the first external grant awarded to the IDEA institute since it was launched in 2019.

The DEEP center will serve as a hub for developing faculty change agents at UIUC and MSU who will foster equitable and inclusive teaching and learning environments for students. The strategy of DEEP will be to focus on fixing the system, rather than fixing the student.

The UIUC team will be led by Dean Rashid Bashir and co-PIs Ellen Wang Althaus, Lynford Goddard, and Ashleigh Wright from the Grainger College of Engineering and Jennifer Cromley from the College of Education. The MSU team will be led by PI Onyema Osuagwu and co-PIs Dean Oscar Barton and Cliston Cole from the Mitchell School of Engineering.

“More inclusive environments positively impact the retention and success of students, particularly those from racial and ethnic backgrounds that are historically underrepresented in engineering,” says Althaus. The collaboration between UIUC and MSU will serve as a new model for educational collaborations, especially between predominantly white institutions (PWIs) like UIUC and HBCUs, and minority serving institutions (MSIs).  

There are increasing expectations for faculty to do DEI work and foster more inclusive environments in their classrooms, not only from the institution level but also from the engineering accreditation board. The Provost Office at the University of Illinois has revised criteria for the promotion and tenure of faculty to include contributions to DEI, taking effect in March 2022 with a 3-year phase in of the policy. In 2023, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) began its own 3-year phase in of DEI criteria, including assessing integration of DEI principles in curricula and faculty creation of equitable and inclusive learning environments.

While these changes may seem overwhelming for faculty balancing many responsibilities in the classroom and in their research laboratories, the goal of DEEP is to help make incorporation of these principles doable. Wright says, “We want it to be more of a systematic, institutional change, where we’re not trying to add another thing to our plate. But rather make it something we inherently do because we live in a diverse society and it’s the right thing to do.”

Over the 2-year duration of the NSF grant (with the possibility of a further 3 years upon renewal), the IDEA team plans to create a repository of lesson ideas and examples and to offer workshops where participants will learn about ways to incorporate DEI principles into the classroom. The goal of the repository is to have a place of easily accessible, crowdsourced information that faculty can use in their curricula. “We hope to have widespread engagement from our faculty and staff, without their feeling like it’s going to be a big time drain for those engaging at the highest level. One person can’t do everything, but everybody can do something,” says Althaus. Further, DEEP aims to develop an on ramp for faculty who may feel anxious or overwhelmed about revamping their courses, to help them grow their knowledge as “equity-minded engineering educators” and infuse DEI principles to their courses. 

Photos of Onyema Osuagwu, Oscar Barton, Cliston Cole
Onyema Osuagwu (left), Oscar Barton (middle), Cliston Cole (right)

The collaboration with MSU is particularly unique because alumni of Grainger are integral parts of this project–MSU PI Onyema Osuagwu is a 2015 electrical and computer engineering (ECE) PhD graduate and was co-advised by UIUC co-PI Goddard, and MSU co-PI Cliston Cole is a 2017 ECE PhD graduate. Leveraging these relationships will be particularly helpful to learn from another institution that has a different culture and a different student body than that of UIUC. It is also valuable to have the perspectives of alumni who have first-hand experiences from UIUC as students and from MSU as faculty. Learning from another institution ways of interacting with students that are different from here at Grainger will add another level of knowledge and information that can be drawn from on how to really engage and have discussions about diverse topics with students.

“We’re excited to see what the results are, what the outcomes are, what’s the impact that we can have from doing this work and then sharing it with other people. Hopefully that really changes the landscape about how we think about teaching at R1 institutions, how we engage with students from diverse populations, regardless of the type of institution for being PWI or an MSI, because it’s all important and valuable,” says Wright.

On the collaboration, Dean Bashir says, "We are honored to partner with Morgan State University to co-create a joint center to bring about positive change. We are committed to building a more inclusive college at Illinois, as well as a more diverse academic culture more broadly."

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This story was published October 26, 2023.