Kelly Cross joined the College of Engineering last month as part of the College's ongoing expansion of the engineering education program.
Cross' research interests include diversity and inclusion in STEM, intersectionality, teamwork and communication skills, and assessment and identity construction. Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categories such as race, gender and class as they apply to a given individual or group, and is commonly used to understand the experiences of students of color in higher education.
Cross hosted a seminar at the University in September focused on integrating diversity and inclusion into engineering. Studies show that diversity improves problem solving, communication skills, and strengthens professional skills necessary to be an effective engineer in a diverse and global technical community.
"Diversity in engineering is essential to both technological innovation and promoting a positive academic climate," Cross said. Engineering educators across the country are enhancing the field of engineering's commitment to broadening participation by recruiting and retaining talented members of marginalized groups that rarely fully participate in all that engineering has to offer, she says.
"Bias has a bad social connotation, but we all have bias; it's just how the human brain works," Cross said. "The point is that we need to learn how to manage bias and acknowledge that we're all human to minimize how our bias impacts our decisions and interactions with those around us."
Cross advises faculty and students who would like to be more inclusive in their engineering research and projects to learn and interact with people that are different from themselves.
"Many people are afraid of what they don't know, but if you reach out and work with someone who has a completely different background than you, you'll start to understand and appreciate the added value of varying perspectives," she said.
Cross is also researching the cultural pressures and stress that engineering can bring.
"Students are historically more stressed then they've ever been," Cross said. "The engineering culture today focuses on grades, being ‘the best,' and getting all A's. Many students who were at the top of their class in high school bring that mindset to college."
Cross says that engineering has a high dropout rate, so her research is a systematic study to understand why engineering students are stressed and the sources of the stress that can have negative impacts including health, social, and psychological consequences.
Cross earned her bachelors of science in chemical engineering at Purdue, her master's in materials science and engineering at Cincinnati, and her Ph.D. in engineering education at Virginia Tech. She is also a member of the American Society for Engineering Education, which "advances innovation, excellence, and access at all levels of education for the engineering profession" and values innovation, engagement, diversity and inclusion.
Through this group, Cross is participating in a program that trains people on how to do online SafeZone workshops, which the University of Nevada, Reno also hosts through The Center. The purpose of these workshops is to make sure that there is a friendly and inclusive climate in engineering for LBGTQ individuals. Cross cites recent research that shows that there is an unfriendly, or chilly, climate for LGBTQ individuals in every sector of STEM professions.
Another research project Cross is working on is a grant awarded by the National Science Foundation, and it focuses on the experiences of women of color in engineering. Titled "The Double Bind of Race and Gender," it focuses on how African Americans, Latinas and other traditionally underrepresented ethnic and racial group females experience both gender and racial marginalization in the field of engineering, STEM and during their engineering education.
"Research on engineering education is a critical part of the College of Engineering's mission to broaden the pipeline of students exposed to this expanding field," said Manos Maragakis, dean of the College of Engineering. "Dr. Cross brings expertise in making engineering a more inclusive field, which is vital to our ability to innovate and develop robust solutions that serve all segments of society."
Cross says that one of the reasons she came to the University was because of the opportunity to collaborate with Adam Kirn, an assistant professor with a joint appointment in the College of Engineering and the College of Education. Kirn focuses on topics such as the motivation of engineering students, engaging students in the K-12 curriculum with engineering in the classroom, identity, and engineering cultures.
"We are focusing on building a Ph.D program in engineering education," Kirn said. "Having Kelly here helps bring a different lens to look at the program."
Cross and Kirn are also looking at improving diversity and inclusion in the engineering world. "We want anyone to come into engineering and develop their skills in the College," he said.