Three Illinois CS Projects Earn Grainger Engineering Support for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Efforts

5/19/2021 2:50:56 PM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Beginning last year within The Grainger College of Engineering, the Institute for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity & Access (IDEA) Institute introduced the Grassroots Initiatives to Address Needs Together (GIANT) program by funding seven projects.

The goal is to “enable teams of students, postdocs, staff and faculty to propose and implement research-based initiatives in the areas of inclusion, diversity, equity and access.”

This year, eight new phase 1 projects were funded through GIANT, including three led by Illinois CS faculty or students.

Peer Mentorship in a Virtual University Setting

Federico Cifuentes-Urtubey
Federico Cifuentes-Urtubey

Led by Illinois CS graduate student Federico Cifuentes-Urtubey – alongside Chemical & Bioengineering graduate student Paola Baldaguez Medina and Civil Engineering graduate student Julie Lorenzo – this mentorship program guides undergraduates from underrepresented groups through graduate school pathways.

The student colleagues are also conducting this work in collaboration with the Morrill Engineering Program (MEP) and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).

Cifuentes-Urtubey said his inspiration for this effort came from two sources. First, he cited the role his mentor, Renetta Garrison Tull, played in his life while he was an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Second, he drew upon his own experiences as a first-generation college student in hopes of improving the experience for similar students.

“I've learned from Dr. Tull that, as a minority in STEM, building community is crucial to success in my academic journey. Being a first-generation college student, now completing my third year of the CS PhD program, my academic and extracurricular experiences proved to me she was right,” Cifuentes-Urtubey said. “The mentorship program I want to develop intends to build a community for graduate and undergraduate students from underrepresented groups in STEM, so they can feel like they belong.”

Now a year and a half old, the mentorship program currently includes 27 active participants. It started in the spring of 2020 with the Graduate Development Team in SHPE.

It’s expanded through panels with national labs and interactive workshops. The next steps for this program – including increased participation in invited speaker events and professional development conferences – benefit from the GIANT program grant.

“I was pleasantly surprised to find out our team had earned the grant. In that moment, it reinforced that my ideas are worth pursuing,” said Cifuentes-Urtubey.

Designing an Inclusive Language Framework that Cultivates Inclusive Cultures for Black Students, Faculty, and Staff

Tiffani Williams
Tiffani Williams

Illinois CS professor Tiffani Williams earned this grant to “explore the perceptions of Black students, faculty and staff about inclusive language used in engineering spaces.”

Beyond that, though, Williams’ work in this area intends to develop an “inclusive language framework to foster inclusive cultures” used in the recruitment and retention of Black engineers. She drew from two sources to describe the desire to conduct this work.

“First, my essay ‘Underrepresented Minority,’ Considered Harmful, Racist Language,' which further considers harmful, racist language. Second, the Anti-Racism Task Force (ARTF) of the IDEA Institute, for which Illinois CS Department Head Nancy M. Amato and I were both members,” Williams said.

This effort begins with the IDEA Grant, which provides an opportunity to find the financial support to establish Williams’ initial actions. It also includes two Co-PIs, Amato and Bioengineering professor Karin Jensen.

“It’s great to have the support of the IDEA Grant for this project,” Williams said. “With this support, we can start work in this new area, which we can then leverage for fostering collaborations and seeking external funding.

“I’m glad we have the IDEA Institute on campus, as it represents Grainger Engineering’s potential to address DEI challenges.”

Apply a Theoretical Understanding of Text-Based Learning Modalities to Develop New Course Modalities That Meet the Needs of Students With Disabilities

Hongye Liu
Hongye Liu

Illinois CS professor Hongye Liu drew upon findings from previous work – which utilized a SIIP grant to better understand the “needs and learning pathways of students with disabilities” – for her IDEA grant proposal.

Thanks to her SIIP grant study, Liu goes into this project with a greater understanding of the difficulties students with disabilities face – particularly regarding digital content.

“Through the SIIP project, we found students with disabilities have stronger preference for transcription enabled video recordings in their courses than students without disabilities. In addition, students with disability enjoy having textbooks,” Liu said.

Specifically for the IDEA project, Liu is forming a team that will “study the preferred characteristics and usage of text-based materials from the student and instructor perspective and develop into ClassTranscribe ebooks.”

“We think providing text-based contents that are more accessible will be beneficial to students with disabilities and beyond. Specifically, we will develop e-Pub from transcription enabled lecture videos and other course contents that are tailed to the needs of students with disabilities,” Liu said.

With backing from the IDEA Institute, Liu said she will connect with more faculty who are actively working on inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility projects – thus helping for inspiration.

She is also actively looking for student participation and encourages students to contact her if they are interested in assisting in this project.

“The IDEA Institute projects are unique in that there are several that students led, as well. I think this is a great venue for students to get involved and to share their perspectives on these important issues,” Liu said.