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NMSU awarded NSF grant to support underrepresented electrical, computer engineering students

An interdisciplinary research team at New Mexico State University is collaborating to develop a community for underrepresented students in electrical and computer engineering that provides opportunities to excel in the field and build their education and career path as confident scientists and outstanding leaders in engineering.

As principal investigator, Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering Assistant Professor Luis Rodolfo Garcia Carrillo is leading a team that will create a wisdom community for electrical and computer engineering students in an effort to improve retention and graduate rates. Co-principal investigators include Hilda Cecilia Contreras Aguirre, NMSU Research, Creativity and Economic Development office researcher; Bill Hamilton, computer science assistant professor; Marshall Taylor, sociology assistant professor; and senior personnel Lauren Cifuentes, curriculum and instruction college professor.

“Our vision for the ECE Wisdom Community is motivated by recognizing the diverse background, expertise, perspectives and expectations of the student body and faculty in the electrical and computer engineering department at NMSU. NMSU provides a unique environment in which to study the convergence of diverse wisdom in a community of higher education to provide ‘servingness’ to its students,” Garcia Carrillo said.  

“Our ultimate goal is to design a virtual platform that maximizes our four outcomes: community, identity formation as an electrical engineer, enhanced critical thinking and increased academic performance,” he said.

The team has received an almost $500,000, three-year award from the National Science Foundation under the Hispanic Serving Institutions Program for the project, “ECE-WisCom: Enhancing Student Performance and Persistence through a Wisdom Community.”

“The proposed educational and research program envisions serving and retaining a diverse pool of students beyond the traditional engineering profile, such as women, nontraditional, LGBTQ, non-native English speaking, first-generation, international, veterans and low-income students,” Garcia Carrillo said. “The project will try to reach those vulnerable and at-risk students who may drop out due to feeling that they do not belong and are not welcome in the engineering community.

“This student population could benefit from a community of faculty and students, where knowledge and support are available, not only during office hours, but when they actually can invest a few minutes or hours of their time to work on homework exercises, practice for exams, etc.,” he said. “We believe that the ECE Wisdom Community, which is supported by a mixed reality educational environment that can be accessed remotely and on demand, can be a useful resource for them.”

The ECE Wisdom Community will include innovative learning and teaching along with the use of mixed reality platforms in an online learning management system to aid online asynchronous communication and collaboration.

“The mixed reality-learning management system platform and social network will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify, differentiate, predict and personalize student learning,” Garcia Carrillo said. “The student population will benefit from forming a network of support interactions and distance-virtual-engagement.”

The team plans to recruit approximately 30 students for its first cohort with an aim to include different groups of electrical and computer engineering students, including nontraditional students who have families and very limited time.

“We need to convince them that being part of this wisdom community will actually be a good investment of their time, with a positive impact in their academic journey at NMSU,” Garcia Carrillo said.

“Participation in ECE Wisdom Community will encourage students to persist in their degrees by providing a platform tailored to their diverse learning experiences, where they can feel that they are included and can contribute,” he said. “The ECE Wisdom Community platform will be created with a focus on online learning, which is important at a time when remote learning is becoming a permanent fixture in the post-COVID pedagogical landscape.”

Not only will the ECE Wisdom Community have an online community, it will also have a physical campus space. Currently, the team is working on integrating the ECE Wisdom Community with the Crosno Student Lounge in the Thomas and Brown Hall, Room 109.

“The mixed reality student space will serve as a place for students and faculty both on campus and online to meet, hang out and work,” Garcia Carrillo said. “Online students will appear as virtual avatars and can inhabit various proxy machines around the room to talk with people physically in the space. Within the space, virtual agents will work to facilitate communal activities such as impromptu synchronous student co-mentoring and asynchronous online discussions. Devices such as shared digital whiteboards will serve as places where both in-person and remote students can come together to work collaboratively.”

The research team intends to offer workshops and presentations highlighting its findings in collaboration with the NMSU HSI STEM Hub. They also plan to develop a website, so other interested institutions can access information about the program.  

“Our goal is to facilitate practices and activities that can be replicated and implemented not only at other NMSU disciplines, but also in other academic settings, including minority-serving institutions and Hispanic-serving institutions with similar student populations and characteristics,” Garcia Carrillo said.