Friday, August 6, 2021

With funding from the National Science Foundation, University of Iowa professors will launch a project examining the ways in which colleges of engineering at predominately white institutions support underrepresented students from the time they are recruited through graduation. Arunkumar Pennathur and Priyadarshini Pennathur, both associate professors of industrial and systems engineering, along with their team consisting of Emily Blosser, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Louisiana, and Nicholas Bowman, professor of higher education and student affairs in the UI College of Education, will use a systems approach to examine where colleges struggle to support students and how the colleges can make their efforts more transformative and sustainable.

"This research funded by the National Science Foundation, is an important first step in our college's efforts to identify and understand better through research the social and pedagogical factors that will catalyze and enable the success of our underrepresented minority students in the college,” said Arunkumar Pennathur. “This research is a collaborative effort between researchers in industrial engineering, education, and sociology, and involves researchers from the UI Colleges of Engineering and Education, and the University of Louisiana.”

The project will use semi-structured interviews and focus groups of engineering faculty, and staff from admissions as well as advising and career services. Additionally, administrative leaders will be included as part of the study’s focus. The project conceptualizes the college as a complex sociotechnical organization with two subsystems at work – a social subsystem consisting of people such as students, faculty, staff, and administrators, and a technical subsystem consisting of elements that can impact capacity building, including goals, policies, processes, programs, data, technology, and knowhow.   

Among the outcomes of the project are the creation of templates that other colleges of engineering can use to discover and understand their own capacities and to further their own recruitment, retention, and graduation efforts for underrepresented minority students. The goal of the project is to enable the success of underrepresented minority engineering students and to strengthen the diversity of the engineering workforce.

“Our college, and other colleges of engineering across the country, are taking proactive steps to support underrepresented students throughout their academic journey,” said Harriet Nembhard, dean of the College of Engineering. “The outcomes of this project will provide guidance as we look at how to optimize staff resources, offer compelling and engaging programming, and ensure that students feel welcomed and supported both inside and outside of the classroom.”

For more information on the project, please contact Arunkumar Pennathur at or visit the NSF project webpage.