By Adrienne Sylver
Watching an interaction between hydrogen peroxide, yeast, water and dish soap, children at the Lester H. White Boys & Girls Club in Fort Lauderdale were awed by the resulting giant foamy reaction. As they created this “elephant toothpaste,” the youngsters learned a little about chemistry, all thanks to FIU’s Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) Ambassador initiative, a program of the College of Engineering and Computing.
The field day was just one part of JEDI, which is intended to empower FIU students to conduct scholarly research that can provide input for JEDI-focused programming and reforms; to expose K-12 students (particularly underrepresented minorities) to engineering and STEM careers; to open dialogue with other student leaders and organizations about diversity, equity, inclusion and justice; and to advocate for increased support and a welcoming environment for all.
The new program, a pilot with expansion in mind, uses undergraduate JEDI Ambassadors who tackle specific initiatives.
“It’s really fascinating watching them draw on their strengths and learn new things. They bring an interesting energy and student perspective to the issues of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Stephen Secules, project lead and assistant professor in the School of Universal Computing, Construction and Engineering Education and the STEM Transformation Institute.
Jocelyn Garcia, majoring in electrical engineering, became a JEDI Ambassador to bring more awareness to the issues facing those who feel that they might not fit in.
“I identify as non-binary, and I’m first-generation Latinx,” Garcia said. “Being able to do something that allows me to learn more about diversity and be an advocate really grabbed my attention.”
Garcia was born in Ecuador but moved to the United States at the age of 3. In Miami, Garcia felt comfortable because friends and neighbors came from diverse backgrounds and spoke Spanish and other languages. When Garcia attended college on the west coast of Florida ― where they received a degree in biomedical engineering ― things changed.
“It really opened my eyes. I knew what it was like to not look like the others. I wanted my Latin music, my Pollo Tropical,” Garcia said, laughing.
Currently, four undergraduate students from the College of Engineering are JEDI Ambassadors ― Garcia, Estefania Victorero, Fabio Macias and Malak Elaouinate. The mentor team includes: Bailey Bond, a Ph.D. student in SUCCEED; Andrew Green, associate director of the Center for Diversity and Student Success (CD-SSEC); Sacha Perez, advisor in the College of Engineering & Computing; Julie Vallejos, Sr. program coordinator, CD-SSEC; Andres Tremante, director of CD-SSEC; and Secules.
“Several students applied for the positions, but the Ambassadors we chose really care about making a difference and making the world a better place,” Secules said. “Connecting research back to advocacy and change is an important part of the JEDI program.”
Initial funding from Lockheed Martin, Microsoft and the National Science Foundation’s Engineering Research Center focused on cellular materials (CELL MET) has gotten the program off the ground, and the JEDI program plans to grow to 10 Ambassadors or more in the next few years.
The JEDI students are engaged in two ongoing research projects: one study is on the experience of women and LGBTQ students in the college, while another study looks at the presence of “weed-out” courses in introductory STEM courses and how a class culture can influence perception.
The K-12 outreach program, designed to introduce engineering and STEM careers to youngsters, includes the field day experience that the group hopes to offer soon at some area schools. Another outreach project is building an inclusive culture and awareness for JEDI issues on campus, including bulletin boards for Black History Month and Women’s History Month, featuring Black people and women, respectively, who have played a significant role in STEM. The four Ambassadors work on multiple teams.
For Garcia, being an Ambassador means more than gaining research experience or creating short-term changes. “I’m now actually thinking about my future as it relates to engineering and diversity and inclusion,” they said. “FIU has made me comfortable going into industry, especially doing co-ops and internships. But now learning more through JEDI, I think my future might include working a couple of years as an engineer and then moving into HR to recruit more diverse engineers or even getting a Ph.D. in engineering education.”
Secules said the potential for the program to grow beyond the College of Engineering & Computing is bright.
“I can definitely see the program working on main campus,” he said. “It’s a mechanism to increase student agency and empowerment that will result in real change.”