A Call for Inclusion

Supporting the diversity of the profession and broadening participation in engineering are dual goals that will help transform STEM disciplines.

08/07/2014


Bevlee Watford recently joined the NSF as program director of Broadening Participation in Engineering.“It’s funny, those of us who are in the field don’t think about the fact that five out of 10 people don’t know what the word STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) means. So it was a huge thing when the president called it out in his speech,” Bevlee Watford, Ph.D., P.E., said.

“Unfortunately, the problem exists from K-12 through post secondary education. And, at the end of the day, we are still looking at significantly low numbers of women in most engineering fields. In many cases, we’ve eliminated the overt actions that cause women to move away from engineering, but there are still issues in both the educational and the professional systems. The climate is slow to change — and I mean real change, not surface change.”

Dr. Watford is the program director for Broadening Participation in Engineering (BPE) in the Engineering Education and Centers Division of the National Science Foundation (NSF), but spoke from her experience as director of Virginia Tech’s Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity. “We have a pipeline problem,” she said. “There are issues with students who are ill equipped to pursue engineering disciplines. Their engineering,” she continued. “We’ve really got to reach back and solve that. On the positive side, we’re starting to see more attention to science content in the K-12 arena, which we hope will improve student preparation and excite them about engineering.”

In keeping with the administration’s push toward a better-prepared work force, the NSF (and BPE specifically) is charged with implementing significant efforts in transforming the educational system for engineers, not just in building better content, but also in extracurricular activities that promote student participation, shaping “the whole engineer.”

Dr. Watford’s main focus is on the faculty end of the pipeline, but K-12 and post secondary initiatives are also on the table. “We deliberately made this call very open to ideas that will increase the participation of any underrepresented group.

“The BPE program has had a number of workshops that focus on graduate students and faculty development,” she continued. “I’m looking to see some broader, more innovative proposals coming from the engineering community. I really want to encourage organizations educational background does not provide the content they need to succeed as undergraduates, or even to be admitted to a program. There are real barriers for all students, but I think women are impacted because we’re still trying to ‘climb out of a hole,’ while the guys were never in the hole to begin with. “Two additional barriers that we’re dealing with now are the financial burden of earning a post secondary education and the preparation for engineering,” she continued. “We’ve really got to reach back and solve that.On the positive side, we’re starting to see more attention to science content in the K-12 arena, which we hope will improve student preparation and excite them about engineering.”

In keeping with the administration’s push toward a better-prepared work force, the NSF (and BPE specifically) is charged with implementing significant efforts in transforming the educational system for engineers, not just in building better content, but also in extracurricular activities that promote student participation, shaping “the whole engineer.”

Dr. Watford’s main focus is on the faculty end of the pipeline, but K-12 and postsecondary initiatives are also on the table. “We deliberately made this call very open to ideas that will increase the participation of any underrepresented group.

“The BPE program has had a number of workshops that focus on graduate students and faculty development,” she continued. “I’m looking to see some broader, more innovative proposals coming from the engineering community. I really want to encourage organizations such as SWE that are in STEM but focused on diversity to participate in our programs and submit proposals for projects. I’m very hopeful for that.

“In a wider sense, BPE will work to influence the research-to-practice actions,” Dr. Watford added. “NSF has funded excellent research that addresses underrepresentation and poor retention. The next big step is to actualize that research in classrooms and institutions. We’ve done a lot with how we teach students, developing more inclusive pedagogies. These ideas have been tested and assessed, and now we need to get them going on a larger scale than what we currently see.”

The BPE program consists of two tracks: the Opportunity Track, which will develop mentoring, networking, and career development activities for individuals who are pursuing or intend to pursue career faculty positions; and the Strategy Track, which will develop and implement research-based strategies that promote a more diverse engineering work force.

“Strategy tends to be a much broader and larger-scale activity,” Dr. Watford said. “We’re looking at partnerships among institutions and organizations, and not on a one-and-done basis. We want projects that will adapt from an R1 institution to an undergrad institution to historically black colleges and universities, to all kinds of institutions. The implementation and success of a project at one institution must be duplicated with respect to the culture of other locations.”

Dr. Watford stressed that funding is available for projects under the Opportunity and Strategy tracks of BPE, and that the SWE community is encouraged and welcome to apply with proposals or projects that will support diversity and broaden participation in engineering. For complete guidance and information on how to apply, please visit http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=504870.

This content originally appeared in SWE's Spring 2014 publication. Edited by Anisa Samarxhiu, Digital Project Manager, CFE Media, asamarxhiu(at)cfemedia.com.



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