Promoting diversity in engineering … by teaching students that engineering is a pro-social career path

September 6, 2019

Joni LakinA professor in the College of Education is collaborating with Auburn University engineering faculty to help promote student engagement in the STEM disciplines.

In 2018, the National Science Foundation funded a research grant — “Framing Engineering as Community Activism for Values-Driven Engineering”– to support an interdisciplinary collaboration between three engineering professors and Dr. Joni Lakin of the College of Education. The engineering faculty include Drs. Virginia Davis, Ed Davis, and Daniela Marghitu. Their research explores how schools and outreach programs can build interest in science and engineering careers by showing students how these careers can address important societal needs.

This collaboration also involved Alabama STEM Education (ASE), located in Bessemer. ASE is a nonprofit organization founded in 2014 to serve the greater Birmingham region. ASE has provided innovative, engaging, and interactive out-of-school-time STEM activities for more than 400 students in Jefferson County.

As part of her research, Dr. Lakin works closely with her engineering colleagues to help them integrate educational research methods and theory into their teaching and disciplinary research. Lakin is also an expert in STEM outreach activities, helping STEM faculty effectively engage K-12 students in learning about their field. She has also worked to broaden identification of gifted students and explored the dangers of “high stakes” testing.

“I myself am an ‘engineering dropout,’” Lakin said. “I began my college career in Civil Engineering at Georgia Tech, then switched to psychology. But I have remained engaged in science. I’ll finish a Master’s in science education this fall. I’ve been taking classes on the side to be able to do this engineering collaboration work better. It’s fascinating to see how merging these various disciplines might inspire young people to embrace the sciences. So after all these years, it’s good to be back in the STEM world!”

Throughout the 2018-19 school year, the Auburn team worked with ASE to evaluate and improve their programming in the Bessemer area. In summer 2019, the team created a new summer camp program specifically designed for students from the Bessemer area called Tomorrow’s Community Innovators camp. Twenty students spent a week in June at the AU campus exploring engineering technology with current engineering students and faculty. They learned about important societal challenges addressed by the grand challenges of engineering, including how engineering is addressing the global need for access to clean water and built and tested their own water filtration system. They made their own solar panels as part of learning about how to make solar energy economical. They also learned about civil engineering and how crucial infrastructure is to our everyday lives. Students also built computer apps to address these challenges and learned how self-driving cars may change the future of infrastructure.