Adding Fuel to the MEMS FIRE Program
MEMS Department receives more than $400k NSF award to expand a program encouraging underrepresented students in future research
A group of mechanical engineering and materials science students at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering wanted to see a change in engineering education – so they did it themselves.
After the death of George Floyd in 2020 sparked a global movement to end racial inequality and police brutality, these students wrote their concerns in a letter regarding inequity to Swanson School stakeholders. The MEMS Student Advisory Board (SAB) was established shortly after.
“As a Black woman in STEM, I’ve noticed and experienced many disparities for underrepresented students,” said Halima Morafa, a recent Pitt graduate and one of the founding members of SAB. “We wanted to create a space for Black and Brown students to improve the climate of both the Swanson School and the engineering field itself.”
Brian Gleeson, department chair of the Mechanical engineering and Materials Science Department at the Swanson School, was one of the first to read the letter. He said an initial meeting with students who wrote the letter prompted efforts to establish the SAB as quickly as possible.
“Their concerns offered a really important perspective for our department,” Gleeson said. “It was going to be a welcome influence on how we planned going forward, including in our classrooms.”
SAB focuses on amplifying the voices of all underrepresented voices in the MEMS Department to create a more unified and proactive community. Its leaders, an elected board of undergraduate and graduate students and four faculty members, ranked creating a research program for underrepresented undergraduates as one of its top early priorities.
The organization soon began piloting their Facilitating Inclusive Research Experiences (FIRE) Program after a donation from alumnus Jim Grubbs (BSME ‘68) made it possible.
Grubbs expressed his enthusiasm for the introduction of the FIRE program at the Swanson School and recalled that during his undergraduate days at Pitt there existed very few minority students and almost no women.
“Swanson is going in the right direction,” Grubbs said. “I’m happy to do my part to help students enhance their experience at Pitt.”
Designed to fix the “leaky pipeline,” a metaphor used to describe how members of certain groups fail to continue the progression toward particular careers - which leads to further underrepresentation - the program’s flame started to quickly catch.
The FIRE Program recently received a $410,216 Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Site Award from the National Science Foundation to expand outside Pitt MEMS.
“We want to highlight and encourage all mechanical engineering and materials science students – not just at Pitt – who are interested in research,” said John Whitefoot, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at the Swanson School and one of the co-principal investigators. “Not only are they getting the opportunity to participate in research early in their careers, but they’re receiving the unique opportunity to engage with faculty members they may not have otherwise.”
Patching the Pipeline
Morafa, who served as the original student coordinator for the FIRE Program, personally decided to pursue industry after graduation, but has always recognized the importance of research and its impact on other students' tracks.
“We wanted to create a holistic experience,” Morafa explained. “We learned that there is a large deficit between training technical skills and how to treat each other in a lab. Researchers and students can face microaggressions and other inequities in every space – and their colleagues or professors may not even realize they’re contributing to the problem.”
The “leaky pipeline” creates a domino effect. Students interact (or, more accurately, don’t interact) with the predominant demographic of white, male professors; feel discouraged; and choose not to pursue education beyond the undergraduate level.
Tevis Jacobs, associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, one of the leading faculty behind SAB and the Fire Program alongside Assistant Professor Nikhil Bajaj, and co-principal investigator, said that these gaps affect and create a problem for everyone.
“The disproportionate representation means that intelligent, qualified individuals are missing out on opportunities to excel,” Jacobs said. “It means that our department – and the STEM field as a whole – are missing out on the contributions those individuals would have made.”
To address the “leak,” the FIRE Program’s solution is simple: inspire underrepresented students to get involved in research and become more aware of academic careers in STEM, while simultaneously helping the department to be more welcoming to underrepresented students. The National Academy of Science issued a report on undergraduate research experiences in STEM and found that programs like this one help undergraduates develop relationships with faculty, increase their awareness and skills related to graduate studies, and motivate them to attend graduate school.1
Whitefoot became more involved in the program as a faculty member as soon as they learned about it. Identifying as queer and Latinx, he feels that something like the FIRE Program would have been incredibly influential to him as a student.
“Imposter phenomenon is a side effect when you enter graduate school with barriers that come from being part of an underrepresented group,” Whitefoot said. “When I learned about the program, I wanted to help teach students how to cope with those feelings like I once had to.”
It’s Not Just About Research, But About Enabling Change
During the ten summer weeks students are in the program, they are expected to undertake their own research project.
Though it may be daunting, the program offers multiple avenues for support – from the technical to the not-so-much. The program, for which students are compensated, hosts workshops and speakers on topics ranging from combating microaggressions to building a strong network.
“We sought to find different aspects of the program that would benefit the students,” Morafa said. “We’re constantly changing it by extending it to more students and adding more workshops. We really want them prepared with a well-rounded skill set.”
The program also features workshops targeted at current grad students, postdocs and faculty members to help them understand the challenges of being underrepresented in STEM. The program focuses not only on supporting the underrepresented students in a difficult STEM climate, but also on changing that climate to be more accessible and welcoming to all students.
The FIRE Program is just one part of SAB’s biggest goal: building community. Mychal Amoafo and Arushi Pradhan, students in the MEMS department and co-chairs of SAB, both joined the organization initially out of curiosity – and some loneliness.
Pradhan and Amoafo both help to plan different events for the organization, but are also helping to re-focus SAB’s mission statement and initiatives, from mental health to creating a more interactive environment.
“We’re trying to broaden our horizons and extend our scope,” Amoafo said. “We want to create a very diverse environment of people and ideas.”
Pradhan, a graduate student, first came to Pitt during the Covid-19 pandemic and was looking to connect with more like-minded people – especially as an international student from Nepal. SAB proved to be the right fit for her. She is hoping to take the organization even further.
“I didn’t really feel like I had a voice, and I needed somewhere that I could feel heard,” Pradhan said. “SAB provided that sanctuary, and I want to do that for other students.”
1National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2017, https://doi.org/10.17226/24622