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Enhancing engineering education: FIU professors win prestigious NSF CAREER awards
Stephen Secules and Alexandra Coso Strong

Enhancing engineering education: FIU professors win prestigious NSF CAREER awards

October 3, 2023 at 3:50pm

Assistant professors Alexandra Coso Strong and Stephen Secules have been granted the National Science Foundation CAREER award, one of the most prestigious accolades for early-career faculty members. The two educators from the School of Universal Computing, Construction & Engineering Education (SUCCEED) will conduct research with the ultimate goal of working with engineering faculty to create positive educational experiences for students.

Separately, a third FIU recipient, Assistant Professor Wim Cosyn in the physics department within the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, this year earned a CAREER award for work related to nuclear theory.

Engineering is one of the most popular majors in the world. It helps students use technology to solve real world problems, and it typically comes with great economic benefits, too. Nine out of ten of the highest-paying majors are in engineering or computer science, according to PayScale data.

Yet, with its blend of math, science, design and more, engineering can be a difficult degree to finish, particularly in four years. This limits the amount of people who ultimately enter the field. Teaching engineering in ways that help students from all backgrounds requires fresh ideas and approaches. This is where the faculty, students and staff in SUCCEED comes in.

In SUCCEED, located within FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing, faculty research how to help engineering and computer science students at FIU and beyond. Now with each SUCCEED professor receiving more than $600,000 over five years to fund their research, the school’s mission to help engineering students is receiving a boost. Secules and Strong are now among five faculty in SUCCEED to have received CAREER awards.

Here is a sneak peek at the engineering professors’ new research initiatives.

Empowering engineering educators to overcome their challenges

Engineering faculty around the country often experience the same challenges when trying to make changes to their courses and curriculum. While each situation is unique, commonly cited barriers include a lack of time, funding and infrastructure. But this doesn’t mean that professors let these obstacles get in the way of supporting and educating their students. Remarkably, many engineering professors have come up with creative ways to overcome common roadblocks and create transformative learning experiences for their students, Professor Alexandra Coso Strong says.

The art of how these professors innovate in their classrooms is what Strong is determined to capture. Through her CAREER award, Strong will focus on finding engineering professors across the U.S. who have created transformational and successful learning experiences for their students. Then, she will work to understand the methods and strategies they have used to get the better of their challenges and promote student success.

“I want to meet with these exceptional educators, learn from them and amplify their stories and approaches,” Strong said.

After learning from these educators around the country, Strong will then serve as a coach for other educators who face similar difficulties at their institutions. These faculty will work together and with Strong to develop tactics and strategies for how to lead change at their own institutions and share lessons learned within their departments and professional societies.

“We will learn from these successful stories of change and explore how to share these lessons with others,” Strong said.

Helping faculty promote racial equity in the classroom

Sometimes, to promote fairness in the classroom, one has to look closely at the details.

Professor Stephen Secules wants to work with engineering professors to help them notice those details. A professor could think about fairness in terms of which students are speaking up in class, or who is asking and who is answering questions.

For example, there is a difference between curiosity questions and some necessity questions that can be helpful for professors to observe. Curiosity questions aren’t essential for understanding the material: “How does the piezoelectric accelerometer in my iPhone work?” Necessity questions are about the material: “I don’t understand why the answer is C, could you explain it?” Curiosity questions can also show classmates how smart you are; necessity questions may show classmates you need more help.

The difference here is subtle but important for fairness in classrooms. Secules has noticed that sometimes students from one racial group might get to ask more questions or take more time on ‘curiosity questions’ than students from another racial group, creating an imbalance over the course of a semester. Once a professor notices these things, they can decide how to act.

Secules’ team plans to take an on-the-ground approach to help professors navigate situations like these to promote racial equity in engineering classrooms. For professors who volunteer to participate in the project, a postdoctoral associate will attend their classes and collect data about an aspect of racial equity in their classrooms. The associate will meet privately with professors to discuss how they might be able to improve fairness in the classroom. Over time, Secules’ team will package what they learn into training scenarios for larger groups of professors so that they can practice responding to common challenges they will face regarding racial equity.

“Sometimes, professors can fear engaging in diversity, equity and inclusion issues and getting it wrong,” Secules says. “Through this work, we are going to build conversational, positive relationships with faculty that provide access and support to promoting fairness in their classrooms.”

A total of 26 faculty members at the College of Engineering and Computing, and more than 50 across the university, have now received NSF CAREER awards.