"From K to gray:" Making engineering more inclusive from 5 to 95

Latanya Robinson works with 5th graders on their circuit games

Latanya Robinson's fifth-grade students stared at the objects in front of them: a circuit board, a handful of paper clips, a paper cup, a piece of tin foil, and scissors and tape. In groups of three or four, they were tasked with designing a circuit-based game for their peers to play using only those materials.

Most of the groups quickly built their circuit, having already studied how to do that. But they were stuck on how to design the game.

One group thought they had a plan but a critical ingredient they had counted on was not available. Another group was halfway through building their game when they realized that the paper clips were all of different sizes, requiring some late-stage bending and cutting. A third group had to modify its plan when the thin sheet of tin foil ripped. Yet another group was back to the drawing board after discovering the paper clips weren't heavy enough to weigh down the cup that was supposed to complete the circuit.

Latanya Robinson works with 5th graders on their circuit games

Fifth-grade students in Latanya Robinson's class design games that use everyday objects to demonstrate the science behind a circuit board. Robinson, who graduated with her M.S. in education in May, worked with assistant professor Adam Kirn on ways to integrate engineering into the elementary classroom.

By 45 minutes into the class period, a number of groups had solved their design challenges and were playing their games. One Operation-style game required players to remove paper clips from a foil-lined cup without touching the edges. Another game pitted students against the clock as they raced to knock down a row of paper clips with aluminum foil balls. A basketball game tested how quickly players could get enough foil balls tossed into a cup to lower it onto the circuit board.

"It's fun," one student said about engineering problem solving. "We get to do stuff we never thought we could do."

Robinson, a special education teacher at Esther Bennett Elementary School in Sun Valley, Nevada, earned her master's degree in May with an emphasis on teaching engineering in elementary schools. She's one of five Reno-areas teachers who worked with assistant professor of engineering education Adam Kirn on research focused on integrating engineering into the K-12 curricula.

Kirn joined the College of Engineering in 2014 with a joint appointment in engineering and the College of Education as the first faculty member in engineering education. Since then, he's grown his program to include a large number of graduate students in both engineering disciplines and education and an impressive number of nationally funded grants enabling research into the science of engineering education.

"There's a systemic problem that's existed in terms of underrepresentation within engineering," Kirn said. "We're looking at ways that we can enhance the experiences for diverse students in engineering. Bringing in these different viewpoints provides us with different approaches to solutions that may be more culturally responsive and may address problems in unique ways."

Kirn's research projects span the pedagogical space from elementary school to graduate studies - a spectrum Kirn likes to refer to as "K to gray," in recognition of changing undergraduate and graduate student demographics that increasingly include students of any age.

Improving engineering for undergraduates

Adam Kirn

Adam Kirn

Kirn has been working to understand the culture of engineering degree programs since his graduate work, where he focused on understanding how student perceptions of their future influenced their willingness to persist through challenging engineering problems. Currently, he's looking at how students' social networks and team formatting influences how they approach engineering problem solving.

Research consistently shows that diverse teams are able to arrive at better, more innovative solutions than homogeneous teams, and an undergraduate engineering education often puts students in diverse teams as part of group design or problem solving challenges. Yet Kirn's research showed those team experiences may not result in increased appreciation for diversity.

"We interviewed 20 students, and they all had pretty nuanced definitions of diversity, but when it came to prioritizing diversity in their engineering problem solving they were all like, ‘It's not important. We need to get our paper in,'" Kirn said. "So with these cultural pressures of deadlines and the cultural norms of engineering, how do we facilitate conversations where students aren't saying, ‘Forget diversity, our paper's due,' but ‘How do we use diversity to make our paper better?'"

Kirn and his collaborators at Purdue University are working on developing pedagogical strategies that might help students make those connections.

"As a result of being in these diverse teams, our students are more aware, but over the course of the semester they become less willing to act to combat racist or sexist statements," Kirn said. "Those are things that are then correlated to students saying, ‘I feel like I do or don't belong in the engineering environment.'"

Importantly, studies that have found diversity improves problem solving have indicated that diversity of thought is a key factor in helping groups innovate. This non-visible aspect of diversity, which may not necessarily correlate with gender, race or ethnicity, is another focus of study for Kirn.

Kirn's research found that engineering students cluster into one large normative group, based on beliefs and attitudes, and seven near-normative groups, with each group containing students from every demographic profile they looked at, including sexual identity, race and ethnicity, gender, and first-generation status.

"In a first-year classroom, I may not be able to say, ‘Hey, there's somebody who looks like you over here,' but I may be able to start saying, ‘Hey, there's somebody who has similar beliefs and attitudes to you,' and there may be a grounds for shared conversation and buy-in to create belongingness in that space," Kirn said.

Kirn's overall goal of creating more inclusive spaces within engineering relies heavily on equipping engineering teachers, from K-12 to higher education, with skills and knowledge about how to teach engineering effectively.

At the K-12 level, that often means giving teachers engineering skills.

"I have a number of projects trying to sustain interest of students in the K-8 environment, because there's a lot of literature that shows that STEM interest in general declines after about sixth or seventh grade for students," Kirn said. "I've had about 10 students who've worked intensely with me on a master's-level project where they've implemented engineering into their classroom. Teachers are starting to ask, ‘How do we do this? We're being asked to do this, we want to do this, but we just don't know how.' So that's a big area of need locally and nationally."

At the college level, improving engineering education often means giving engineering experts more refined teaching skills.

Kirn is currently working on establishing a graduate minor in engineering and science education that would equip University graduate students who plan to teach engineering and science at the college level with pedagogical training and a credential to that effect.

"I've started to get really interested in the graduate space because those are the next generation of folks who are going to go teach our students," Kirn said. "If we can start to influence how they perceive engineering students, how they perceive how engineering should be as an educator, they're often the gatekeeper for either propagating existing cultural models or changing those cultural models."

In coming years, Kirn is working to establish a Ph.D. program in engineering education and a master's program in engineering for K-12 teachers. As those programs come to fruition, the University will join just a small handful of universities nationwide with formal programs in engineering education. But beyond program growth, Kirn measures success by changing the nature of engineering itself.

"My goals are creating an engineering environment where any student has the opportunity to come participate in engineering and feel like they can be welcomed," Kirn said. "That's one of the beauties of working here. It's a state where we have a lot of opportunity for growth. If we improve the quality of engineering experiences for students, they then have a range of opportunities that they maybe haven't had traditionally here within Reno and in the state."

Researchers study how to improve engineering education at all ages

K-12 Education

Indira Chatterjee, Associate Dean of Engineering

Indira Chatterjee

Indira Chatterjee

The College of Engineering at the University of Nevada, Reno has a robust K-12 outreach program that served over 4,000 students in 2017. The program aims to introduce students to engineering and to keep them engaged with math and science during late elementary and middle school years, when the research suggests that STEM interest begins to wane for many students. The program also seeks to increase the participation of underrepresented groups such as young women or first-generation college students in engineering degree programs.

In collaboration with Adam Kirn from the College of Engineering and Jennifer Amos from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Chatterjee, who oversees the College's outreach programs, is conducting research on the impact of participation in engineering summer camps on three different groups of students: young women, first-generation college-bound students and a general summer camp population.

"The project is funded by a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation and explores the change in engineering identity and interest of middle school students participating in these summer camps," Chatterjee said. "The research will also study which camp activities result in the change in engineering identity and interest."

A seasoned researcher in traditional engineering research, the project is training Chatterjee and graduate student Tim Robinson in engineering education research techniques with Amos serving as primary research mentor and Kirn as the local mentor.

Undergraduate Education

Nelson Pearson, Ph.D. student in civil engineering

Nelson Pearson

Nelson Pearson

Pearson is studying the social networks of engineering students to see how students interact with their peers and whether that interaction varies based on demographic criteria. His work has mapped the interactions of University of Nevada, Reno students enrolled in different classes of Engineering 100 and found evidence of similar interaction patterns across demographic boundaries.

"We see, regardless or race or gender, there's the same kind of interaction," Pearson said. "We can say with proof, 'Our environment is inclusive.'"

Pearson, who plans to teach civil engineering when he graduates, wants engineering educators to bring the same rigor they use when approaching engineering problems to pedagogical design.

"Engineering prides itself on being on the cutting edge and using new technology," he said. "Standard lecture is not the best way. More activity gives greater benefit to the students. The real goal for me was, there's got to be a better way to go through this process."

Graduate Education

Marissa Tsugawa-Nieves, Ph.D. student in materials science engineering

Marissa Tsugawa-Nieves

Marissa Tsugawa-Nieves

Tsugawa-Nieves has always known she belonged in a classroom. As a high school student, she used to spend time in her mother's classroom, helping younger students, and she continued to teach during her undergraduate and graduate studies, including participating in the grant-funded GK-12 program that placed engineering and science graduate students in area K-12 classrooms.

"When I was in GK-12, I started to learn more about engineering education, but I didn't know it was an actual field," Tsugawa-Nieves said. Around the same time, Kirn started at the University and Tsugawa-Nieves was encouraged by a professor to learn more about his work.

At the time, Tsugawa-Nieves was nearing the end of a challenging master's degree program and was unsure of her next move. She wasn't particularly interested in going to work in industry but had also decided a traditional Ph.D. in engineering wasn't for her.

Kirn's research group provided her the opportunity to combine her dream of doing research with her passion for helping people understand engineering. Tsugawa-Nieves is studying the role identity and future goals of engineering graduate students, with a particular focus on teaching assistants.

"It's always been my dream to do research," she said. "I feel like I have more opportunities than I did as an engineer. My research is trying to show there are more paths. The assumption about Ph.D.s is that you're going to go into academia. Our work can hopefully help break down that barrier and show there are different paths to pursue."