(336e) Using a Diverse, Inclusive and Supportive Academy Integrating Research and Professional Skill Development to Enhance Graduate Education in Chemical Engineering | AIChE

(336e) Using a Diverse, Inclusive and Supportive Academy Integrating Research and Professional Skill Development to Enhance Graduate Education in Chemical Engineering


Escobar, I. - Presenter, University of Kentucky
Santillan-Jimenez, E., University of Kentucky
Crocker, M., University of Kentucky
Dariotis, J., University of Cincinnati
Duan, Q., University of Cincinnati
Graduate education and training often take a monodisciplinary approach that is not informed by best educational practices, ignores the needs and preferences of trainees in general and underrepresented minority (URM) trainees in particular, and overlooks the increasingly interdisciplinary and international nature of research. In this contribution, we describe a diverse, inclusive and supportive academy integrating research and professional skill development to enhance graduate education in chemical engineering. This academy – which leverages the most effective tools for the training of chemical engineering professionals (including developmental network-based mentoring and career-transferable skill development) – will generate an innovative model for graduate student training by identifying and avoiding issues often associated with these tools.

For instance, mentoring has been proven to improve retention and performance, leadership, and student involvement in graduate school, especially among URM students. However, mentoring is typically challenged by the lack of adequate training not only for mentors but also for mentees, an issue only recently emphasized by mentoring experts. Similarly, although the skills that graduate students need are well known, students are commonly left to drive their own development, with “sink or swim” constituting the default advising style. Several theories exist regarding the mechanism through which mentoring improves retention and academic success, including promoting students’ involvement in learning, facilitating their integration in the educational environment, helping them cope with this environment and providing the developmental support they need to reach their potential. Since using a single theory is inadequate due to various possible outcomes, all theories aligned with the outcomes pursued must be acknowledged. Indeed, each theory emphasizes distinct mentoring relationships given that different types of mentors are best at providing specific kinds of support. Thus, multiple relationships are required to ensure the attainment of the desired outcomes, which highlights the need for – and the value of – a developmental network approach to provide trainees with all the support they need. This approach is particularly effective at improving outcomes for URM students.

To retain URM students, universities must provide a supportive and nurturing environment, mentoring also helping URM students succeed in an environment that may be alienating or hostile. Mentoring has even been defined as “a deliberate effort to provide support to minority students [...] through frequent contact and interactions with mentors” [N.H. Cohen, 1995]. Notably, mentoring has been successfully used to attract and improve the retention of URM students, who found mentors of great help to their academic and professional development. This is particularly true for URM students in STEM, for whom a close student-mentor relationship and role modeling lead to positive outcomes. Among the literature on the mentoring of STEM students, reports of increases in the number of URM students who earned PhDs are noteworthy. Nevertheless, the issue of underrepresentation in STEM at the graduate level and in the workforce remains ingrained.

Attrition among URMs has been attributed to academic and cultural isolation, lack of peer support, low motivation due to low expectations, and discrimination. All these issues can be addressed by mentoring, which can increase retention and the number of students who earn STEM baccalaureate and graduate degrees. Recruiting active research faculty and involving students in research represent two important elements to improve academic integration, knowledge and skill development, as well as to offer support and motivation. This renders a research and developmental network-based mentoring approach – and its alignment with the aforementioned mentoring elements and objectives – particularly compelling. Last, while some mentoring programs pair students with a mentor of the same sex or ethnicity, many reports emphasize that cross-race and/or gender mentoring is effective and offers distinct advantages to mentees, including improving cross-race and cross-gender communication skills. Moreover, reports indicate that academic interests are an equally sensible matchmaking parameter and that matching by gender or race does not improve outcomes, which is propitious since same-race or same-gender matches are challenging at the graduate level where, by definition, faculty from underrepresented groups is scarce.

It should also be recognized that a one-size-fits-all approach can potentially perpetuate discrimination for URMs unless intersectionality – a term originally coined to discuss instances “where women of color experience both race and gender discrimination simultaneously” [V.H. Hunt et al., 2012] – is addressed. Thus, students must be treated as diverse individuals with multiple intersecting identities and target the recruitment, retention and mentoring of women of color by recruiting at minority serving institutions, considering the impact of application fees or minimum GPA and GRE scores, and identifying sources of financial aid. Critical multicultural education and intersectionality must be used as a combined framework to help all participants understand cultures other than their own.

Against this backdrop, the training graduate students receive – in a way that is fully integrated with the research they perform – within the diverse, inclusive and supportive academy described herein includes: 1) tools such as individual development plans and developmental network maps; 2) a multi-departmental and interdisciplinary course on research-related content; 3) a seminar course on transferrable skills (ethics, research, communication, teaching, mentoring, entrepreneurship, teamwork, management, leadership, outreach, etc.); 4) a certificate to be awarded once students complete the two courses above and garner additional credits from an interdisciplinary curriculum of research-related courses; 5) summer internships at other departments and at external institutions (other universities, industry, national laboratories) nationwide or abroad; 6) an annual research-related symposium including all elements of a scientific conference; 7) internal collaborative research grants for participants to fund and pursue their own ideas; 8) fields trips to facilities related to the research; and 9) coaching on job hunting as well as résumé, motivation letter and interview preparation.

Since a workforce equipped to meet society’s challenges must be both well trained and diverse, multiple initiatives ensure that the academy broadens participation in chemical engineering. Recruitment-wise, close collaboration with a number of entities provide the academy with a broad recruitment pool of talented and diverse students. Moreover, collaboration with these entities provide trainees with ample opportunities to acquire, practice and refine their professional skills, as trainees present their results and recruit in conferences, meetings and outreach events organized by these entities, become members and/or join their leadership, and expand their professional and mentoring network in the process. In addition, URM trainees must be surveyed periodically to probe their feelings of well-being, preparation, acceptance, belonging and distress, as well as their perception of how well structured their departments and programs are. According to recent literature, these factors determine whether or not they perform (i.e., publish) at rates comparable to their male majority peers.

Saliently, the evaluation of the educational model employed is designed to afford a comprehensive understanding not only of the academy components that were more utilized and impactful, but also reveal the individual mentoring and skill-building facets of the program driving its successful implementation. The evaluation plan includes outcomes, performance measures, an evaluation timetable, benchmarks and a description of how formative evaluation will improve practice, the evaluation process also extending to research activities.