New initiative encourages students from underrepresented populations to enter engineering, computer science fields

Constantin Ciocanel in a classroom

The workforce throughout northern Arizona and the Southwest will need a growing number of engineering and computer science professionals who can develop advanced solutions addressing water supply shortages, increasing access to renewable energy, enhancing infrastructure, mitigating climate change and solving other significant challenges facing the region.

However, according to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, Native Americans represent only 0.3 percent of the overall U.S. engineering workforce today, and Native American women make up only 0.7 percent of all women in the engineering workforce. Furthermore, Native American students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields are underrepresented as well, consisting of only 0.5 percent of students nationwide.

Professor Constantin Ciocanel, chair of Northern Arizona University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, along with faculty collaborators J. Lawrence Walkup Distinguished Professor Pradeep (Max) Dass, chair of the Department of STEM Education, Carson Pete, assistant professor of teaching in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and associate professor Kyle Winfree, associate director of undergraduate studies in the School of Informatics, Computing, and Cyber Systems, have been awarded $1.49 million in funding through the National Science Foundation’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) program. The funding will support a new initiative, “Scholarship Opportunities for Student Retention and Degree Attainment in Undergraduate Engineering and Computer Science,” designed to identify, recruit, mentor and reward academically promising, underrepresented and financially disadvantaged students seeking to study mechanical engineering, civil engineering, environmental engineering, electrical engineering and computer science.

Ultimately, the program seeks to increase the graduation rate of students in engineering and computer science and as a result, contribute to the needs of the regional and national economy.

“I always wanted to create opportunities for students who are financially challenged to pursue an engineering degree,” Ciocanel said. “This NSF program was the right mechanism to leverage on for achieving this goal, so I put the team together and we started working on the proposal.

“It was important to me to provide opportunities to students from the Navajo Nation, particularly as I saw an immediate benefit to training them on renewable energy, a particular area of strength of our department. I was also aware of the need for environmental engineers who could go back in their communities and help restore their lands that were polluted with radioactive and toxic materials. Finally, I learned that the Navajo Nation could benefit from more computer scientists and electrical engineers who could spearhead innovations, build infrastructure and promote new technologies in their communities.”

Dass said, “We’re addressing a very important need in our society and in our community, especially at this point in time. As disparities seem to keep increasing between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’—those who have educational opportunities and those who do not—it’s our moral obligation to do things that will reduce these disparities and provide opportunities for those who have traditionally been underrepresented in STEM. As the leading Native-serving institution in the nation, along with our designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, we need to actively engage in projects that will serve these student populations.”

The four objectives of the S-STEM Scholar project are to:

  1. Broaden opportunities for university access to underrepresented and financially disadvantaged students from the broader northern Arizona region.
  2. Increase student success, retention and graduation through student services.
  3. Facilitate student advancement to relevant employment/career pathways.
  4. Increase recruitment and participation of underrepresented and financially insecure Indigenous students into NAU’s graduate programs.

The NAU team will partner with Diné Tribal College and other Arizona community colleges to help S-STEM transfer students navigate the transition to NAU engineering and computer science programs and will mentor the S-STEM scholars together with other engineering and computer science faculty.

Program provides substantial financial aid

One important feature of the initiative is the financial aid provided. The first cohort of nine students will start in the fall. Seven will be freshmen, who will each receive a scholarship of up to $10,000 per year for up to four years, and two will be transfer students, who will receive a scholarship of up to $10,000 per year for up to two years. By the end of the program in 2028, more than 116 scholarships are expected to be awarded.

“There are at least two barriers that often deter students from pursuing engineering degrees,” Ciocanel said. “One is the word ‘engineering’ that many, when thinking of it, envision a very hard degree to be attainable. That cannot be further from the truth—with motivation and appropriate support everybody can pursue whatever degree they want and be successful. Nothing is impossible. The other is often a financial barrier—we hope that access to the S-STEM scholarship will help overcome this barrier.”

Peer mentoring, faculty mentoring key components of student success

Recognizing that financial aid alone cannot increase STEM students’ retention and graduation, the NSF also provides funding to support recruitment, retention, transfer, student success, career pathways and graduation.

“What’s important beyond the scholarships the NSF funding will provide is the support system we’ll develop for S-STEM scholar,” Ciocanel said. “We’ll leverage existing offices and resources on campus that cater to students’ needs and student success in general, and we’ll develop additional mentoring programs and interventions that are specific to this project. We’ll provide a full spectrum of support mechanisms to help the S-STEM scholars complete their degrees.”

The peer and faculty mentoring will focus on academic success, degree completion and gainful employment upon graduation. Undergraduate and graduate students will help build a peer mentorship network.

“Sometimes students who are financially disadvantaged don’t feel that they belong, so we will create a network of peers who will help them integrate on campus and direct them to the resources needed to be successful. When they see their peers successfully integrated into college life, it will make them realize not only that they belong here too, but that they can thrive at NAU.”

S-STEM scholars will have opportunities to engage in research experiences, through research seminars and access to faculty research laboratories, pursue internships and other professional development activities as well as participate in social events.

“We want to provide the S-STEM scholars with opportunities that they may otherwise miss simply because they may not have parents or other family members who have attended college,” he said. “Career mentoring is also embedded in the project to help the scholars understand what it takes to prepare themselves for life after earning a degree.

“Faculty mentors will provide support as well, and their focus will be primarily on academics and career options. We’re working to recruit faculty eager to help the S-STEM scholars throughout the degree and be there for them particularly during academically challenging times.”

The team will measure their success in several ways, with the top measure being their ability to reach out to as many potential eligible students for this scholarship as possible, providing opportunities to the most in-need and most talented students out there. Other measures of success will be the diversity of the S-STEM scholars, retention and graduation rates, career placement after graduation and their impact on communities over time.

Dass will guide the interventions, which will be designed in accordance with educational research methodology. The team will use surveys to collect and analyze data and share it with an external consultant for formal project evaluation.

How to apply for the S-STEM Scholar program

To learn more about the S-STEM program details, including application requirements, or to apply, visit the NAU NSF S-STEM Scholarship Program website. Students from historically underrepresented populations (female, African American, Alaskan Native, American Indian/Native American, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian and Native Pacific Islander) are encouraged to apply.

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Kerry Bennett | University Marketing

NAU Communications