Joi Mondisa

Advancing creativity and mentorship in engineering education

Impactful work in the fledgling Engineering Education Research program is recognized with prestigious awards

How can we teach engineers to explore all the options before they winnow down to the best choice? What are the best practices for supporting minoritized students—students from demographics that have been pushed to the margins of society and also university life? These are the big ideas guiding the work of Shanna Daly, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Joi Mondisa, an assistant professor of industrial and operations engineering, respectively.

Both were recently honored with CAREER awards from the National Science Foundation. These competitive grants recognize promising young professors who are likely to serve as academic role models and lead advances that serve the missions of their departments.

Launched in 2018, U-M’s Engineering Education Research program is part of an emerging national trend. Most engineering education programs are housed in a stand-alone unit, but U-M is improving on the model by hiring program faculty who will conduct engineering education research while being embedded within engineering departments.

Daly and Mondisa each answered some questions for the Michigan Engineer about their research and how they hope to affect the future of engineering education.

Shanna Daly—Creativity in engineering

What is the core problem you are trying to address through this vein of your research?

We don’t address creativity in engineering curricula—it seems ambiguous and not rigorous to many instructors. It can’t be taught through equations, and there’s no definitive right answer. The CAREER award gives me the chance to show that creativity can in fact be taught rigorously through tools and structures that support exploration of possible options.

Engineering disciplines lean hard into convergent technical skills, a mindset in which there are ‘correct’ answers to standard questions. While convergent skills are important, we also need to train students in divergent thinking. In a sense, divergent thinking enables engineers to explore their options, and convergent thinking chooses among the options.

Studies show that the key to creativity is learning to move easily back and forth between these two types of thinking. Practiced well, divergent thinking enables engineers to consider alternatives at every stage during problem solving: For example, in the ways they define the problem, differing approaches they consider, and the range of potential solutions devised. If an engineer practices little to no divergent thinking, then the most obvious or conventional plan is pursued.

Developing training on divergent thinking within engineering curricula will transform engineering education by embedding creativity within engineering cultures. And as these engineers go on to face complex engineering problems, they will draw on divergent thinking to come up with innovative approaches and solutions.

What results do you expect from your research?

The findings from this work will impact how we think about creativity and the language we use to define it. We will also explore pedagogy: How to teach creativity successfully and how to incorporate tools and frameworks into engineering problem solving that guide exploration of possibilities. The outcomes will serve as a foundation for curricular reform in high school and undergraduate education—and for training opportunities in professional engineering practice to integrate divergent thinking as a core engineering skill.

Further, divergent thinking—if valued and practiced well—can improve engineering through making the field more inclusive. If we place a high value on divergent thinking, students who are creatively inclined will find more ways to engage with and contribute to the field. The connection and belonging that they feel when engineering is receptive to divergent thinking will reaffirm their choice to enter the field—and to stay. Diverse ideas from diverse contributors strengthen the work of engineering and the field as a whole.

What does the new funding enable you to do?

The funding will allow us to investigate the ways that engineering students and practitioners explore alternatives as well as how they limit their own exploration. Further, we will study how educational and work environments affect the likelihood of divergent thinking. As engineering students and practitioners engage in engineering problem solving, do they perceive their environments as encouraging or discouraging exploration of possibilities?

Importantly, this funding also supports the development of tools, pedagogy and training materials—including the development of stories that represent real examples of divergent thinking in engineering work. Finally, this grant allows for building and sustaining partnerships both locally at U-M and nationally. We will do this by working with engineering students, instructors, and practitioners to promote the development of engineers who can address the complex problems of our world through creative approaches.

Joi Mondisa—Mentoring minoritized students

What is the core problem you are trying to address through this vein of your research?

Mentoring has been shown to positively affect and influence the persistence of minoritized undergraduate students in STEM (e.g., Blacks, Hispanics/Latinx and American Indians/Alaskan Natives). Yet mentors in higher education do not have many examples that detail effective mentoring approaches, strategies and competencies that help minoritized mentees to persist and graduate.

It is well established that minoritized students face additional challenges, and many faculty members may not have experienced those challenges themselves. Even among those that have, best practices typically develop informally. My goal is to use this intentional study to create the knowledge and educational practices that can help equip mentors to support the needs of minoritized STEM undergraduates and increase the number that graduate.

What results do you expect from your research?

This work will help improve mentoring practices by making visible the approaches and strategies that mentors use to help their protégés persist in STEM. Through improved mentoring, I foresee an increase in students completing degrees and joining the workforce in STEM fields.

What does the new funding enable you to do?

In this study, I will examine the approaches and strategies of mentors who help minoritized undergraduate mentees persist in STEM. Additionally, I will examine the experiences of the same mentors’ mentees. From this work, I will create an inventory of evidence-based mentoring approaches, strategies and educational resources.

Read the abstract of Mondisa’s new paper in the Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering, “The role of social capital in African American STEM mentoring relationships.” Or read more about Mondisa’s work in the feature story, “Mapping the gaps.