2021 CoNECD

Project Connect – A Model for Immersive Professional Development of Future Engineers

Presented at CoNECD Session : Day 1 Slot 2 Technical Session 1

Introduction – Project Connect (PC) is an immersive professional development program designed to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in engineering who pursue careers in the microwave engineering and related fields. Most of the professionals in this area have been educated in the electrical engineering (EE) field with a focus on applied electromagnetics, antenna theory and communication systems. The electromagnetics class in a typical electrical engineering undergraduate programs involves vector calculus and abstract concepts without, in many cases, the right facilities or equipment to aid experiential learning. This leaves most students perplexed and disinterested in the field, while they do not fully realize the wealth of opportunities that lie beyond this course. This problem is even more pronounced for students from underrepresented groups as they may have less exposure to the professional and academic opportunities in microwave engineering. Project Connect was birthed out of the need to keep these students engaged in the field by exposing them to a broader view of the field and the impact that they can have on technology.

Each year, the PC program is housed within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Microwave Symposium (IMS), a flagship conference based in North America with a typical attendance of over 9,000 and an industry exhibition with more than 700 companies. PC hosts approximately two dozen students for four days of community building and professional development, most of whom are juniors or seniors in undergraduate programs, along with a smaller cohort of first year students in graduate programs. The groups, consistently mixed in gender, get an opportunity for direct interaction of fellow PC participants, practitioners and academics, which is central to the success of the program. PC is sponsored jointly by the National Science Foundation and the IMS Organizing Committee, and has been in operation since 2014.

Program – The agenda for the four-day event at the IMS combines professional development with fun activities intentionally programmed to incorporate the local culture of the IMS host city and the thematic focus of the conference. The goal of experiencing local culture is combined with a community building activity for the students on the first full day of the conference; typically, this includes a team-based scavenger hunt in an area of historical significance in the city. The bonding opportunity is effective at building comradery and dissipating anxiety in students, many of whom have limited or even no experience in this kind of professional setting. Many of the students participating in this program have not traveled beyond their home state and are anxious about the benefits of PC. By interacting with their peers and learning about a new city, they are able to open up to the new professional directions that they will be challenged to consider.

The second and third days are a combination of participating in general conference activities and focused group sessions on professional development, involving the program coordinators, practicing engineers, and faculty. To facilitate the former, the students are given assignments to engage with specific types of companies, attend technical presentations, introduce themselves to conference organizers, and the like. The students are required to “connect” with graduate students who are currently engaged in the profession and learn about their experiences beyond an undergraduate degree. The technical aspect of the conference is reinforced by connecting at least one focused PC session to the conference theme, e.g. biomedical applications of microwave engineering. Students may then attend a panel session or meet key influencers associated with the theme. A PC reception is also held where VIPs of the conference and professional society meet with the students for one-on-one interaction. The professional network of organizers from industry, government, and academia are also invited to talk with students about career opportunities. The importance of network building is frequently reinforced, and this includes the development of effective ‘elevator speeches’ and strong encouragement for the students to participate in social events that accompany the conference. On the fourth and final day, the students present “IMS Through Our Eyes” videos, prepared generally at the end of Day 3 by working in groups of 2 or 3, to capture their experience. The team videos are also utilized by the organizing team to share with constituent groups to seed commitment for future meetings.

The effectiveness of Project Connect can be attributed to it being embedded within the IMS conference setting. There are multiple generations of engineers in attendance, including graduate students, early-career professionals, managers and lab scientists, and high-level corporate officers. People at all of these stages welcome the opportunity to participate as panelists and engage directly with the students, providing a window into their career paths and the professional lives of working engineers. The large industry exhibition includes demonstrations of state-of-the-art microwave technology, and the showroom floor bristles with activity. With this backdrop and a carefully designed curriculum that utilizes the setting for engagement, the students have extra motivation to absorb what is shared with them about presenting themselves (the elevator speech) and ample opportunity to practice. Furthermore, the interaction with the panelists has the effect of shortening the perceived distance between a young student and a successful engineer, thereby improving the students’ ability to interact comfortably with others at the conference. Moreover, the IMS is simply a vibrant and entertaining event with a constant stream of technical and social activities.

Lessons Learned – The first five years of Project Connect were focused on defining, refining, and tuning the program curriculum content by the organizers to maximize linkages between the conference and the program and learning experiences. In year two, university housing incorporated as a cost-savings measure created an unexpected benefit. We observed better student interactions within the group of strangers due to the familiarity of the student housing platform and its convenient gathering spaces that fostered more social interactions than a hotel. In year four, a community building activity was added to learn about the local community. Since then, the community building activity has become a part of the curriculum where local environment is used to teach about culture and to have fun while learning about team work. The application process has been fine-tuned to include a 3-minute video, an electronic form with basic information, reference letter and transcript. This drives efficiency in both the application submission and review process. Because the program is specialty specific, we look for student interest, review transcripts to make sure the student has taken courses that allow them to understand at a basic level the content of the conference, and feedback from the reference letter that the student will engage and participate actively since the curriculum requires active teamwork on an extremely short time line.

Recruiting Challenges – One on-going challenge has been recruitment. The program has received 30-50 preliminary applications each year, but often many of them are not completed. So recruitment has proven to be a two-part problem of first publicizing and attracting initial interest, and then having the students follow-through and complete the application process.

To publicize the program, electronic flyers are sent to faculty in organizer networks, electrical engineering department heads, and friends of Project Connect who have expressed interest. These include various types of campuses with electrical engineering programs at predominantly white universities (PWIs), historically black college and universities (HBCUs), and minority serving institutions (MSIs). We have also informed local campus student groups (e.g. NSBE and SHPE) at our respective campuses, tried using the national level access to student groups occasionally, used social media platforms such as Facebook and Linked-in, as well as Project Connect Alumni. We have contacted minority program coordinators at PWIs, but microwave engineering, as a sub-discipline of electrical engineering, appears to be too specific for them to know if a student is interested. Contact with electrical engineering department advisors has been somewhat helpful for informing students, but in order to complete the application process students usually need guidance and support from someone who can explain the technical conference or the Project Connect program.

Even the most productive recruiting channels, through faculty in our network and Project Connect alumni, have challenges. For undergraduate students, effective recruitment by faculty generally happens with advocates in our professional network who are actively teaching courses in our sub-discipline area thus providing access to potential PC participants. However, faculty roles often change over time, e.g. teaching a different set of courses or becoming more administrative, and this has caused access points to be broken and sometimes lost. In a similar way, the effectiveness of recruiting by PC alumni is limited since familiarity with other students in a program usually extends one year (e.g. from senior to junior) at best. On campuses where we don’t have faculty advocates, those interested students may not know about the program or have the confidence to apply even if they do. Finally, the cost-savings trend that is leading to more students attending community college is making it more difficult for faculty to meet and re-meet students in their junior year. Therefore, students who may be transferring into the university may have less access to participation.

For the graduate students who participate, they have self-identified interest in the sub-discipline but may not have clarity or committed fully to the specialty area. Some may also be unsure about whether they will pursue an MS only, or continue into a PhD program. Our aim is to provide them with more clarity to decide on an interest area and access to a network of people to keep them engaged and connected once they enter the workplace.

We will be exploring ways to develop effective recruitment strategies in the future. We will leverage what works and explore how to make better connections to students on different university campuses. Given the new privacy laws and changing access points to under-represented students through various diversity officer/staff networks, this will be important information for professional societies to become aware of as employers strive to create a more diverse workplace with the help of professional societies.

Program Evaluation – An external evaluator has been engaged with the past two PC events in order to determine how effectively the program is meeting its goals. Findings from the evaluation will be included in the full paper submission.

  1. Prof. Rhonda R. Franklin University of Minnesota, Twin Cities [biography]
  2. Dr. Kristen S. Gorman University of Minnesota [biography]
  3. Prof. Rashaunda M. Henderson University of Texas at Dallas [biography]
  4. Dr. Abhay Samant National Instruments [biography]
  5. Dr. Tom Weller Oregon State University [biography]
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