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National Science Foundation awards Pitt with $1.58 million AGEP-KAT grant to improve PhD candidate success among underrepresented students

PITTSBURGH (December 1, 2015) … The National Science Foundation has awarded a nearly $1.6 million grant to the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering to improve the success of underrepresented students in doctoral engineering programs through faculty-student interaction. The five-year program will allow Swanson School faculty to adopt and adapt strategies and practices employed by the University of Maryland Baltimore County's (UMBC) Meyerhoff Scholars Program and the NSF-funded PROMISE AGEP Maryland project to create a culture change within the traditional PhD experience.

The Pitt project is supported by the NSF’s Alliances for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) program and is a Knowledge Adoption and Translation (AGEP-KAT) award. The AGEP program funds KAT projects to expand the adoption and/or adaptation of research findings and evidence-based strategies and practices related to the participation and success of underrepresented minorities (URMs) in STEM graduate education, postdoctoral training, and academic STEM careers at all types of institutions of higher education.

The grant proposal authors are Sylvanus N. Wosu, associate dean for diversity affairs and associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science; Steven D. Abramowitch, associate professor of bioengineering; and Mary E. Besterfield-Sacre, associate professor of industrial engineering and director of the Engineering Education Research Center. The grant, totaling $1,584,793, continues through August 31, 2020.

“Although there is a greater emphasis on graduate education in STEM and engineering programs, only ten percent on average of research doctorates are students from underrepresented populations including African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians,” Dr. Wosu said. “This low engagement creates a ripple effect that can impact successful recruitment, retention and graduation of PhD candidates, who are integral to engineering education and research. By utilizing methods developed by UMBC and other evidence-based strategies, we hope to create a mentor/mentee model for engineering schools to help underrepresented doctoral students thrive and succeed.”

According to the Pitt proposal, the research team will focus specifically on improving faculty engagement with students, advancing their awareness of the barriers and problems the student experience, and developing a shared vision regarding the success of URM graduate students within the school of engineering. Student-focused objectives include adapting and implementing the evidence-based strategies being adopted, enhancing professional and educational skills, and increasing the number of students who are retained and graduated in engineering doctoral programs.

“Graduate school can be an isolating experience for students because it lacks the large class cohort of the undergraduate curriculum,” Dr. Abramowitch explained. “In particular at the PhD level, an engineering student is almost exclusively working with a faculty researcher in a lab or field setting, which separates the student from a more diverse population. So by building a mentor/mentee relationship, we can establish a stronger foundation for success.”

With support and extra funds  provided by the Swanson School’s U.S. Steel Dean of Engineering Office, the program will provide U.S. underrepresented students with a stipend and tuition, in addition to support for summer study. “The concepts are critical to our school’s long-term objectives to encourage greater minority representation in our graduate engineering programs,” Dean Gerald D. Holder said. “With the combined strengths of the leadership team as well as our established recruitment programs, I believe the Swanson School is strongly positioned to successfully execute this program.”

Qualified participants will have graduated from an accredited STEM undergraduate program with a 3.3 GPA and show strong motivation for entering a PhD program. The program will also support new training programs for faculty who rely upon the traditional advisor model.

“Ensuring student success also requires a culture change among faculty, and so we’ll establish specific workshops and training to help them adapt to a mentorship model,” Dr. Besterfield-Sacre said. “This will include retreats for mentors and mentees in the program, as well as the ability for students to shadow mentors at engineering conferences, which are usually out of reach of PhD candidates because of cost. This will enable a greater interaction between student colleagues as well as the ability for students to more richly explore their field of research.”

“Because of the unique challenges that underrepresented students already face in higher education, we need to rethink the traditional model of faculty-student interaction while ensuring a rigorous academic experience,” Dr. Wosu said. “This project could help more minorities succeed and build a more diverse environment for engineers.”


Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Author: Paul Kovach

Contact: Paul Kovach