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Engineering researchers awarded $4 million to empower more minority students to pursue STEM

Story by
Trisha Radulovich
okoli and dickens
Professor and Chair of Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering Okenwa Okoli and Associate Professor Tarik Dickens of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering landed a $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Security Administration to build the pipeline for minority engineers and students in STEM, from the K-12 to doctoral level. (Photo: FAMU-FSU Engineering)

I AM EMPOWERED … are the words of strength that researchers of the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering use to describe a new consortium. The group wants to advance minorities in careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.

“The demographics of America are changing and as a nation, we are becoming more diverse,” Tarik Dickens, associate professor in industrial and manufacturing engineering, said. “However, representation of minorities in STEM fields has changed little in the past few years.” 

His comments are backed up with a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center

Dickens, co-director of a consortium of researchers at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, explains, “We are leaving a lot of creative, bright minds who reflect our diverse population out of the mix. New challenges require thinkers from across the spectrum.”

A vision for more diversity in research 

The Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration has awarded the college, through Florida A&M University, a $4 million grant to lead the new collaborative effort with universities, laboratories, and government partners to advance minorities to the next level in STEM education. 

Sharing a vision, the new consortium, Integrated Additive Manufacturing – Establishing Minority Pathways: Opportunities for Workforce-development in Energy Research and Education or (IAM-EMPOWERed) will provide opportunities for minority students to excel in STEM.

The consortium director, Okenwa Okoli, is a professor and chair of the department of industrial and manufacturing engineering at the college and lead project director for the grant. Okoli emphasized the importance of introducing STEM to students at an early age. 

“There is a great need to educate a minority workforce who can be pipelined to government labs and government agencies,” Okoli said. “However, more needs to be done to strengthen the foundation of these students. We think by addressing issues early and engaging students we can give them the skills to succeed later in life.”

The mission is personal to Okoli, whose children attended a failing elementary school a few years ago. It saddened him to see them in a situation that might create barriers. After speaking with the principal, Okoli sought a solution to help the students at the school.

“After some research, we found that a two-to-three-hour block of time after school was being wasted,” Okoli said. “So, we worked with the teachers to create an after-school program based on STEM activities. We provided funding through the DoE Massie Chair program and sent some of our engineering students to the school to mentor the students and get them excited about STEM. To make a long story short, it made a big difference, and the school went from a D to a B rating.”

Okoli explains, “If you are able to succeed from K-5, then you can apply the same techniques in middle school, then high school. You end up with a huge pool of young people in STEM that you can direct to a baccalaureate education and beyond. You might even inspire the next group of scientists who may one day change the world.”

The researchers hope to empower students at different levels while using a multilevel approach in their development. The group plans to integrate STEM after-school programs for K-12 into the curriculum offered in three local area schools. They plan to track the progress of students over time to see how the initiatives are making a difference.

Building the research pipeline

They will also develop higher education opportunities in partnership with several colleges and laboratories. The researchers hope the collaboration will provide an interconnected community of resources for students. 

The IAM-EMPOWERed consortium is a southeastern community that includes:
•    FAMU-FSU College of Engineering
•    Benedict College
•    University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
•    Kansas City National Security Campus
•    Los Alamos National Laboratory
•    Y12 National Security Complex

Each partner plays a part in unique opportunities for targeted students. Benedict has a four-year baccalaureate program and is a Historical Black College and University (HBCU); the UT Grande Valley College is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and offers master’s programs. FAMU is an HBCU and offers bachelor, master’s and doctorate programs in engineering. There are also relationships with Southern University and Spelman college, both HBCUs. 

In addition to a pathway of degree options for minority students, the consortium will provide internships, summer programs, and training opportunities as students progress through their programs. The purpose is to establish a sustainable interconnected community based on the research exploits of the National Science Foundation-Research Experience for Undergraduates in their respective departments and through the NSF-Centers of Research Excellence in Science and Technology program. 

“One of our goals is for all the undergraduates to come here and work with us at the High-Performance Materials Institute over the summer to get training,” Okoli said. “Once trained, they will be able to go to our DOE partner laboratories during the summer to get experience working in research at the labs.”

Transforming STEM education

Okoli and Dickens are working with several researchers from the joint engineering college, including Subramanian Ramakrishnan, professor of chemical and biomedical engineering; Simon Foo, professor of electrical and computer engineering; Natalie Arnett, associate professor of chemical and biomedical engineering; and Zhibin Yu, associate professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering. 

The DOE-NNSA is interested in developing additively manufactured devices through the Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Program (MSIPP). The consortium places a strong emphasis on the recruitment and matriculation of electrical engineers, manufacturing engineers, chemical engineers and other STEM disciplines with backgrounds in additive manufacturing design, processing and fabrication.

“We are using a tiered approach to educating these students,” Dickens said. “The K-12 is long-term. In the short term, the focus is research scholars. The integrative program with other educational institutions and lab partners will amplify and empower students at all those levels.”

The consortium aligns with the NNSA’s strategic roadmap of modernizing production capabilities through advanced research integration. Using improved infrastructure from the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering’s NSF-CREST program to provide state-of-the-art research equipment, the consortium will train a broad technological workforce across nuclear, aerospace, energy and other sectors of the U.S. economy. The goal is to provide transformational STEM education and empowerment impact to nearly 2,100 students at the doctoral, undergraduate and K-12 levels. 

“There is no reason why African American and Hispanic students shouldn’t be more involved in STEM,” Okoli said. “There are creative minds out there that we have missed. This is just the beginning.”

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