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Organizations to Build an Engineering Identity

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Season 2 · Episode 13

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Dr. Renata Revelo talks about the importance of identity when educating and retaining engineers. Dr. Revelo is an electrical engineer, a professor, and a researcher in engineering education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She’s studied Latina/Latino students who participated in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) during their education, and she found that the organization helped them better see themselves as engineers, without separating themselves from their own communities. As a follow-up to the previous episode of the podcast, this episode explores Dr. Revelo’s work with Hispanic students at the college level, while applying the ideas to all students.

Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor, used under a Creative Commons Attribution License.

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Pius Wong  0:00 

Milestone: My supporters on Patreon have officially paid off my podcast hosting and streaming costs for last year. Thank you all so much. Now to pay off this year. But really the current goals still are: If more people donate, I can get text transcripts up faster and pay for better sound, by way of software and equipment. To donate, just go to patreon.com/pioslabs. And I know that sounds weird. So I'll spell it out. That's patreon.com/pioslabs. And if you pledge certain levels, I'll give you a shoutout on-air and or online as a thank you, and I'll give you a code to get my ebook, Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games. So again, thanks to all my current Patreon supporters, and if you're not one, please check out patreon.com/pioslabs.


Pius Wong  0:56 

It's June 12th, 2017, and this is the K12 Engineering Education Podcast. How do you help get students to see themselves as an engineer? Questions like this one have interested Dr. Renata Revelo for years. Dr. Revelo is an electrical engineer and currently a professor and engineering education researcher at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I'm your host, Pius Wong. I recently spoke to Dr. Revelo to get her take on these issues. During the previous podcast episode, I spoke to an expert on ways to teach engineering to Hispanic students and other communities in K through 12. As a follow up, today's guest talks about her research on Hispanic college students and their participation in the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, or ship abbreviated SHPE. Her findings and ideas have implications for all students.


Dr. Renata Revelo  1:57 

So my name is Renata Revelo. I am a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department. My area of research is in engineering education. So in this department, my primary focus is teaching. So I teach a Senior Design class and electromagnetics class, but then I have projects where I work on and think about engineering education research around success of underrepresented students in engineering.


Pius Wong  2:29 

Yeah, I saw some of your research. You've written a couple papers, and you do a lot of work on how identity as an undergraduate might affect retention, especially if you're an engineer. Can you talk a little bit about some of that?


Dr. Renata Revelo  2:45 

Yeah, definitely. So some of the work that I've done around identity -- When we talk about identity, I just want to start off by saying that we're talking about various different ways in which people identify themselves. So social identities is the focus of a lot of my work, but then also how they are identified by the society around them and the people around them. So specifically, the work that I've done has to do with how students identify as engineers. And I look at the -- well, for one of my studies, I looked at Latinas and Latinos, and how they identify as engineers, while they're in college.


Pius Wong  3:31 

What issues do Latinas and Latinos face when it comes to identity as engineers?


Dr. Renata Revelo  3:37 

So one of the things that we see from the literature is the importance of identity in regards to sense of belonging. So feeling like you belong within this culture of engineering, that you belong in your department, that you belong in the major in your college, is really important to staying in engineering. So some of the things that we see in terms of the barriers that Latina and Latino students might face, if you will, in getting their engineering degree is this concept that others have come up with, which is termed "chilly climate," although for women of color, for example -- so in this case, it would be Latina women -- they would call it "icy climate." So it's this idea where students who are very well prepared for succeeding in engineering, you know, on paper, would feel like they would otherwise not belong in departments. So this chilly climate where they might feel like they're being stereotyped, that they don't have any role models: so maybe other peers in their departments, or professors, or even staff that look like them. And they might even have just negative experiences with peers or with professors that leads to this kind of climate that makes it difficult for students to stay in the major.


Pius Wong  5:12 

And I noticed you also researched a little bit about what helps mitigate the effects of that chilly or icy climate. You did some research, for example, on professional organizations that students can get involved with, right? I was wondering if you could explain some of that.


Dr. Renata Revelo  5:29 

Sure. So I looked at -- well, the main study looks at one specific professional organization. But I think there is probably a lot of parallels that can be drawn from this organization to other organizations like it. So the organization that I'm talking about is the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. So this is the largest national organization for Latina/Latino engineers in the United States. And at the university level of this organization, students can create their own chapter. So there's student chapters all over the country, for students to be part of this organization. And so what I found through my study was that by being a member of this organization, students were able to engage upon things that help them develop their engineering identity in a way that is not currently reflected in the literature of engineering identity. That way being by having these role models. So seeing other engineering students, other engineering professionals. One of the main ways in which they do that is at the national conference where they meet -- I believe last year the National Conference was over 3000 people in attendance. By having a community and by doing things within the community, so as being part of this organization, students engage in projects, where they work with middle school and high school students on inciting them to be part of them. I mean engineering, of course, but STEM generally. And then by being peers with one another.


Pius Wong  7:10 

Yeah, that's interesting that you touched on how SHPE also works with K-12. I was wondering, since that's a professional organization, I guess high school students can't join. But how would younger students or teachers in K-12 get involved in these groups if they wanted to help kids foster that identity?


Dr. Renata Revelo  7:33 

Sure. Yeah. So actually, high school students can join.


Pius Wong  7:36 

Oh they can? Oh, okay.


Dr. Renata Revelo  7:39 

So this organization, we understand -- And I say "we" because I also volunteer at the national level for the organization -- the importance of K-12 is well understood. So actually, I work on -- I volunteer for the K-12 portion of the national conference. So I'll talk a little bit about that in a second. But how high school students can be involved is they have chapters at the high school levels. These chapters have to be connected to a university chapter. So as long as there's that connection, they can be created, and they're called SHPE ["ship"] Junior chapters.


Pius Wong  8:17 

Okay, well, that's great. And I guess the teachers can just Google that and find it, if they have it locally.


Dr. Renata Revelo  8:23 

The information, yeah, should be on their website. And the best way to go about it, in my opinion, would be to seek out a SHPE chapter at the university nearby, where they're at, and see if there's a connection already there, meaning there's already a SHPE Junior chapter in place, and if not, you know, ways in which that can be that can be created.


Pius Wong  8:48 

Thank you. And so, I know your research is more at the university level. But I was speaking with Dr. Alex Mejia, and you know him. You're the one who pointed me to him. He does a lot of research in K-12. And he explained that in K-12 there's a big push for culturally responsive education, and not, of course, just for Latinas or Latinos, but for many groups of kids. So  people recognize that that's important. I was wondering, after his conversation, if universities also value or want culturally responsive education in engineering.


Dr. Renata Revelo  9:34 

Yeah.  I would say that, in my opinion, yes. In my opinion, that the connection to culture is one that can be also drawn to a connection to identity. So my opinion, you know, it makes sense to discuss engineering in light of the different cultures that are represented in the classroom, because it would help students make more money for connections to the major that would then help them develop their engineering identity, and persistent to major. Now, so while I think yes, and well, I'll give you an example of one way in which I'm trying to do it in my senior design class, I don't think this is very prevalent throughout the nation. I think there's people who are doing it at various levels of the curriculum. So at the first-year level, I've seen a lot of examples where culturally responsive pedagogy is being used to include the diversity that exists in the classroom, in the curriculum. So in the first-year types of classes, students get a sense of generally what is engineering about. So it makes it very easy to discuss engineering from the perspective of not just, you know, examples from the United States or Western cultures, but others' culture that may be represented in the classroom. So one way in which I am trying to do this this semester is with my senior design class, where, from my research, of course, I learned that for Latina and Latino students, being part of the community through their engineering work was really important. Now I am at a Hispanic serving institution. So in my classes, I do have good representation of Latina and Latino students. And so for my senior design class, we are -- It is modeled after Purdue's Epics program, where they do work with community organizations, design work. So we made the students in my class this semester, they're working on their engineering design project, which is their capstone project, right, like the big project they do before they graduate as engineers. Normally, they would do this by thinking about a problem themselves and trying to solve that problem. And then designing a system to solve that problem. Whereas in this class, again, modeled after Purdue's program, Epics, they had -- The students are working with a nonprofit community organization on a problem that they've presented to be important to them to the organization. And so the students are working closely with them to kind of come up with solutions for that problem. Well, one thing that differentiates it from the program that I was talking about, after which it is modeled, is that, for this particular class, and sort of connected to culturally responsive education, the importance of social and critical consciousness and developing that should be addressed. So in the design class, we chose the community organizations that have a social justice, vision or mission to them, so that we can talk about issues of social and critical consciousness and engineering and design and how the students are working with these organizations.


Pius Wong  13:15 

What's been the student response to that?


Dr. Renata Revelo  13:17 

Sure, yeah. Well, we do reflections. They submit reflections on a weekly basis, and all the students are really excited that they get to work with what they consider a real client. So we talk about -- We consider things around expertise. So the students get a chance to draw from their own expertise in terms of design, but they also draw from the expertise of the community partners, technical and non-technical. So they really enjoy that process. So far so good, but they get to implement the whole thing next semester, so there's still some time to see how these things will turn out.          


Pius Wong  14:04 

Yeah, it sounds like a real engineering problem. So good luck to them. You know, I do have more questions about that. I am curious. I guess that's -- Is that an electrical engineering course?


Dr. Renata Revelo  14:20 

Yeah, it is.


Pius Wong  14:26 

Okay. So I'm wondering, how do you find -- because this sounds like something that would be really interesting to many professors, and teachers even in high school engineering courses -- How do you pair up the right organization with, say, the right group of students?


Dr. Renata Revelo  14:31 

Okay, yeah that is a good question. Because getting in touch with community partners was a challenge on its own. Because I'm not from Chicago, myself. And the majority of my students are from the area. So I wanted to make sure the students worked with people around the areas where they live, right? So actually, I worked with two amazing -- one undergrad and one grad student. And so the undergrad, she had connections with community organizations in the Chicago area. So she was really key. And she's in chemistry, she's not in engineering, but she was really interested in making these connections and sort of helping with this class. So she was really key in us having access to inviting these community partners to be part of this project. With as far as pairing the students with these community partners, it really came to discussing what each of these community partners were about. So we went through that in the first couple of weeks of classes, and then what problems they were presenting, and then we left it up to the students. I think the majority of students were partnered with their first choice of community partners. That kind of worked out this semester. But it was really a challenge to create these partnerships first, and then also sort of set up the problem so that it could have solutions in electrical and computer engineering.


Pius Wong  16:08 

I see. Okay, so it does sound like it's still significant work. But if someone can pull it off, there's really, really big rewards.


Dr. Renata Revelo  16:17 

I would say so, yes.


Pius Wong  16:18 

Okay. So I know that you're very busy, so I don't have that many more questions. I'm just wondering if you have any final thoughts or tips that you might be able to give to teachers of engineering of younger students?


Dr. Renata Revelo  16:34 

Yeah, so maybe I'll put in the plug for the pre-college conference that I was alluding to earlier. So SHPE at the national level -- and I'm willing to bet that other organizations do this as well -- For the national conference, the main focus historically has been around undergraduate students. So putting together workshops to help them succeed or whatnot. But there's also a pre-college branch to the conference. And it's free to students. Of course, the conference takes place in different places every year. This year is going to be in Kansas City. So you know, if you're around that area, or if you are able to travel to that area during the conference, which happens in November, you know, it's free. So as long as you have a way to getting there, it's one whole day of workshops for engineering-types of activities.


Pius Wong  17:31 

That sounds excellent. I think teachers should definitely check that out if they can get over there. Well, thank you so much, Dr. Revelo. And I hope that teachers follow your advice.


Dr. Renata Revelo  17:43 

Thank you. It's been my pleasure.


Pius Wong  17:50 

Check out this episode's show notes for links to Dr. Renata Revelo's bio, for research, and the Purdue Epics program that she mentioned today. Let me know what you think about the show. Rate and review the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow and tweet the show on Twitter @K12engineering. Or you can do the same to me @PiusWong. Learn more about the show on Facebook, on the r/EngineeringEducation subreddit, and more places. Find details at the show's website, k12engineering.net. Our closing music is from late for school by bleep tour under a Creative Commons Attribution license. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs. And you can support Pios Labs www.patreon.com/pioslabs.


Pius Wong  18:49 

Hey, some short musings for the post-show notes today. I had mentioned before, and I'll say it again: We've started a new project called Improv PD, or Improv Professional Development. And there is a website that summarizes what it is. You can check it out right now. It's improvpd.com. But the gist of it is that we are training professionals in professional concepts by way of improv. My colleague Rachel and I, we've done this already with a lot of different people, teachers and engineers alike. The tricky thing is that, I don't know if we're just preaching to the choir, you know? Like the people who have been coming to our trainings before, maybe they're just already natural improvisers. Maybe they're already embracing failure and collaboration. And they've got no problems thinking up new ideas. So they probably wouldn't necessarily need improv training, you know? And maybe the people who need it most are most skeptical of this kind of thing, like the person who's the least creative, most averse to risk and failure, least collaborative, they're the ones who would be most offended by the idea to do improv-based training in engineering concepts or in education concepts, you know? So, I don't know if we can actually reach people who need this. Maybe we can, maybe we can't, and I'm trying to work with partners to get capital or funding to help me run pilots. Basically, I will let you know what the results are. Let me know if this interests you, especially if you're around Central Texas, and that will help. I'm excited. We'll see how this goes.