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Collaboration committed to diversity in engineering

Summer program brings together multiple universities, Intel and Facebook to broaden horizons for students, faculty and industry

illustration of education, people studying
December 18, 2020

Arizona State University’s new summer research experience for engineering students from historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, is expanding in 2021 to include new schools and added industry sponsorship.

The Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU launched a summer research internship program, known as SURI, in 2019 to engage undergraduate students from other American universities in meaningful research with Fulton Schools faculty and facilities. During 2020, the program extended to engineering students from leading international universities, and a new track was initiated for students attending HBCUs through a consortium facilitated by Intel to help improve diversity within the technology workforce.

The pilot version of the HBCU internship program included seven engineering students from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University who participated virtually, due to COVID-19 restrictions, in eight weeks of research with Fulton Schools faculty from late May to late July 2020. Those involved report that the experience was transformative.

“Many participating students arrived with little understanding of what researchers do on a day-to-day basis, or more fundamentally what graduate school is about,” said Adolfo Escobedo, an assistant professor of industrial engineering at ASU, who worked with four students from Florida A&M University, or FAMU.

“But after the program, these students said they felt motivated to become involved in research at their home institution and to pursue graduate school,” Escobedo said. “They also appreciated learning about the experiences of professionals at Intel. Stories from people in industry help students to see that the backgrounds and the life paths of many engineers are diverse, and that they themselves can get there.” 

Lisa Smith, manager of the Scholars Program Office at Intel, says FAMU students valued their research experience at ASU and the support they received from Intel mentors. Consequently, she says FAMU looks forward to taking part with more students in 2021, and the enthusiasm has extended to other schools.

“There are five other institutions in our consortium of HBCUs, and now they are eager to participate in this new collaboration,” she said, referring to Morgan State UniversityHoward UniversityPrairie View A&M UniversityNorth Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and Tuskegee University.

“These schools additionally want to expand the connection by involving their faculty members with the experience of exchange,” Smith said. “When students return to their home university, they can build on the benefits of their summer research at ASU if their own faculty are on the same page and can aid their growth.”

Faculty involvement highlights student support, but it extends further. Cross-institutional connections open the way for new scientific discovery and engineering innovation.

This potential is exciting for the academic researchers, but also for the technology industry businesses that interface with colleges of engineering. Consequently, Intel and now Facebook have committed significant funding in 2021 to support not only HBCU student internships at ASU but faculty collaboration among universities.

“Of course, these relationships need to develop organically based on various interests and needs. The best thing we can do is create an opportunity in which faculty can come together and see what is possible,” said Anca Castillo, associate director of outreach and student recruitment for the Fulton Schools.

“So, we’re hosting a faculty networking event that works a little like ‘speed dating’,” she said. “It’s scheduled for Feb. 13, when ASU faculty can introduce themselves to peers from the participating HBCUs, and they all can talk about their research, their areas of expertise and so forth. Afterward, these amazing people can continue to communicate and generate ideas.”

Cristine Cooper, academic relations manager at Facebook, says these connections represent exciting potential worthy of funding.

“Issues of diversity within STEM fields are top of mind right now, so we are enthusiastic about the possibilities for addressing current imbalances,” Cooper said. “The idea of these partnerships supporting students from HBCUs is outstanding. These are vital. But the impact of cross-institutional collaborations among faculty is tremendously motivating. Connecting ASU faculty with colleagues at HBCUs expands the impact of scientific talent. Future issues of dramatic significance, including policy around those issues, may be resolved through complementary sets of expertise that come together through initiatives like this one.”

The summer 2021 program will be delivered both in person and digitally. More than 50 different ASU faculty members are opening their work on almost 70 different research topics. As well, they have indicated through the program website whether student intern involvement needs to be on campus or online.

“Most faculty are offering both options, so students have choices,” Castillo said. “If we are able, we want to have students come to Arizona. But we are offering maximum flexibility because building community and sharing resources reflect the charter of ASU. How that happens is less important.”

This spirit of broad collaboration is seen as the strength of SURI and the future it represents — particularly for current undergraduates, said Shonda Bernadin, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at FAMU as well as the faculty coordinator for the school’s internships at ASU.

“The success of this program,” she said, “demonstrates the potential to positively impact the career development of minority engineering students by building strong industry and cross-institutional connections through research, mentoring, and professional development opportunities.”  

For more information about SURI in 2021, visit the Fulton Schools graduate engineering program website.

Top graphic by Rhonda Hitchcock-Mast/ASU

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