The graduate education system in the College of Engineering is a complex puzzle with many pieces.

From the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) to training and professional development opportunities for faculty to special projects designed to strengthen support for graduate students, each initiative in the College of Engineering is an essential part of creating the equitable graduate program picture. 

With the support of a $1.2 million organizational transformation grant from the National Science Foundation, the college will take those pieces and strengthen their connections by developing a center called Partnerships and Research on the Equity of Graduate Education in Engineering (PROTEGE), focusing on changing the graduate engineering education system by connecting, integrating, and improving numerous processes in addition to providing support for graduate students.

Graduate students work in chemical engineering lab.
Rosalyn Hatlen (from left), Neeti Gandhi, and Padma Rajagopalan of the Department of Chemical Engineering recently worked with computer science researchers on a published project that examined how COVID-19 interacts with human cells. Photo by Tonia Moxley for Virginia Tech.

“When I think about equity in engineering, it’s really about how we look at what we do, how we teach, make decisions,” said Julie Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering and a principal investigator for the grant. “Our hope is not that we just close any gaps we may be seeing in terms of outcomes, but we actually elevate the outcomes for all of our students across the college.”

Unlike its undergraduate counterpart, graduate education (both at Virginia Tech and across master's- and Ph.D.-granting institutions) operates in a decentralized way. Recruitment, admissions, Ph.D. qualifications, funding, and research groups vary across the departments.

“Twenty, 30 years ago, there wasn’t a universal belief or understanding that it might be the system that’s flawed,” said Bevlee Watford, executive director of CEED and co-principal investigator on the grant. “Now, we’re in a different frame of mind where we’re recognizing things like institutional racism, sexism, and seeing that even with all the support in the world, if we don’t change the system, we will have to continue providing that support.”

Levern Currie showing other students her app.
Industrial and systems engineering Ph.D. student Levern Currie (at left) demonstrates her app, Drivingo, a speech-independent, gesture-based recognition software for fast food ordering. It uses hand gestures based on American Sign Language to allow customers who do not speak the language or who are nonverbal to communicate bidirectionally with service staff. Photo submitted by Levern Currie.

Developing PROTEGE

Though current initiatives to improve graduate education are in various stages of progress across the college, the grant unites them under one name and a larger source of funding, which is essential for driving consistent change. According to Ross, the grant enables the college to stay focused, achieve more, and hold the work to a higher level of accountability.

CEED will have a vital role in supporting the backbone of the center, providing organizational structure and facilitating communication across stakeholder groups.

“CEED itself cannot fix this problem,” said Walter Lee, associate professor in engineering education and co-principal investigator on the grant. “Nor should it be expected to fix it. But because it’s already been doing a lot of this work, it will be instrumental in making sure everyone’s on the same page.”

A student working on a laptop while three drones hover.
Larkin Heintzman, fifth-year electrical and computer engineering doctoral student, works on drones for Assistant Professor Ryan Williams' search and rescue research. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

In addition, PROTEGE will be supported by an interdisciplinary group of faculty:

Over the next two years, the college will examine every element of the graduate process, from admissions to funding; interview graduate students; and connect with stakeholders, including faculty throughout the college. Because of the unique processes of each engineering department, faculty and department buy-in is critical for change.

“Grants come and go,” said Ross. “Deans come and go. Department heads come and go. Provosts come and go. If there’s not buy-in from grassroots levels, you can’t be successful in the long term. Even if you put some change in place, you can’t sustain it.”

Often, faculty engage in the graduate admissions or recruitment process when they’re searching for students to fill lab positions. Having no open positions can lead to less faculty involvement. According to Watford, this impedes an equitable treatment of student applications.

“Faculty should be concerned about the qualifications of every single student that comes into their department,” said Watford. “They’re not necessarily focused on the overall benefit to the department or the rankings or stature. But we’ve created that culture. They didn’t go rogue –- this is the way it was created, and that’s a problem.”

A student working in Eli Vlaisavljevich's lab.
Virginia Tech graduate student Jessica Gannon, who joined the Therapeutic Ultrasound and Noninvasive Therapies Laboratory in 2019, was inspired to pursue pancreatic cancer research after her father's death from the disease. While working in the lab, she's developed an affinity for histotripsy's real-time image guidance. Photo by Peter Means for Virginia Tech.

Going beyond Virginia Tech

Remodeling the college's graduate education impacts the field of engineering itself. Increasing the diversity of student backgrounds and developing the best education and training leads to a highly skilled workforce, both in academia and industry.

“I care about this issue because I care about our students and because the world needs us to care about this issue,” said Ross. “If engineers are going to do the work we need them to do –- there are really big, complicated problems out there -– we can’t do that if we’re relying on a very small group of people to solve those problems.”

According to Ross, who champions the college’s strategic plan built on equity of access, education, and resources, the college's unique blend of engineering and education expertise serves as a platform for leading national change.

“If we can figure out how to do it at Virginia Tech, other large research-intensive institutions can figure out how to do it,” she said. “And that’s the kind of thing that can really move the needle for the profession.”

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