Expanding Pathways For Black Engineers

In Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering, Featured, Inclusive Excellence, News, Research GrantsBy Shawn Jenkins

From left: Denise R. Simmons, Ph.D., ESSIE, and Idalis Villanueva Alarcón, Ph.D., EED

From left: Denise R. Simmons, Ph.D., ESSIE, and Idalis Villanueva Alarcón, Ph.D., EED

As the demand grows for a diverse pool of future researchers, faculty and Ph.D.-level hires to populate the exploding technological workforce, the dynamics that affect the recruitment and retention of Black doctoral engineering students come under necessary scrutiny. Black students historically are among the smallest demographics of enrollment in engineering or STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, and researchers at the University of Florida have hypothesized that a culture that builds ‘agency’ is fundamental to boosting the number of Black engineers by cultivating a professional identity. 

“Agency is the ability to perceive and enact change within one’s environment,” said Denise R. Simmons, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Civil & Coastal Engineering and associate dean for Workforce Development in the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. “What that requires is a certain amount of self-efficacy — the ability to believe in one’s own ability to do something. Organizations need people. And employees are, likewise, trying to determine what organization they want to be a part of. The nexus between the two is where I like to focus my research.” 

Dr. Simmons is the leading principal investigator for the $1.28 million, four-year project “Critical Conversations: Systemic and Agentic Empowerment of Black Ph.D. Students and their Faculty Advisors in Engineering,” which is sponsored by the Racial Equity in STEM Education program, an initiative of the National Science Foundation’s Education and Human Resources (EHR) division that supports racial equity in STEM. 

The interdisciplinary research team includes UF faculty, Dr. Idalis Villanueva Alarcón, Ph.D., associate professor and associate chair of Research and Graduate Studies in the Department of Engineering Education, and Jasmine McNealy, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Media Production, Management and Technology in the College of Journalism and Communications, and associate director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project.  

In this project, academic partners will help refine and co-develop materials, procedures and policies to mitigate racial inequities in their respective disciplines in engineering. One of the focal points of this work will be to explore agency and to investigate and uncover coping and advocacy strategies in engineering. Critical communication strategies and policy strategies for instituting change and empowerment within engineering and engineering education will also be addressed with the goal of helping students of color broaden their participation in the engineering workforce.  

“In the relationship between a Ph.D. student and advisor, we see a recurrence of miscues,” Dr. Simmons explained. “For the student, it comes in the form of things like preconceptions that impede success in their scholarship or research exploits, maybe a belief that the advisor will be responsible for answering every question or taking initiative for things the student alone must undertake.”

Dr. Villanueva will focus on identifying what is called “hidden curriculum,” unspoken norms and ways of things that may be evident but are not codified (written down) and may serve as an obstacle to advancement in an organization because they are concealed in the environment. Dr. McNealy’s communications expertise will address how agency and these unwritten rules of hidden curriculum are conveyed.

“We hope to effect systemic change in this nexus by bringing these students and academic partners together in the small scale, then developing tools, strategies and methods for how this is done between them in the larger context across academia,” Dr. Simmons said.