Bioengineering professors awarded NSF RIEF grant to study the impact of soft robotics curricula on female high school students

7/30/2021 Huan Song

Bioengineering professors Holly Golecki and Karin Jensen have been awarded a two-year, $200K NSF RIEF grant and will partner with local schools in Champaign-Urbana. 

Written by Huan Song

Bioengineering professors Holly Golecki and Karin Jensen have been awarded a National Science Foundation Research Initiation in Engineering Formation (NSF RIEF) grant for their project titled, "Research Initiation: Understanding Impacts of Soft Robotics Curricula on Female Students Engineering Identity." The researchers received $200,000 in funding to carry out this study over two years. 

Bioengineering professor Holly Golecki
Bioengineering professor Holly Golecki

The engineering pipeline starts long before university. Exposure to engineering activities, such as robotics, during a student's K-12 experience, is a common precursor to enrollment in engineering majors. However, there is currently a gender gap in traditional pre-college robotics. This in part translates to fewer women pursuing mechanical and electrical engineering majors in college. Finding successful pathways for women to these majors is under-researched. 

The aims of this study are twofold. First, the team seeks to understand changes in the engineering identity of middle and high school-aged female students after having engaged in soft robotics projects in their science classes. Second, this project will catalyze a new research enterprise focused on access to engineering and educational robotics. 

"We have a very high enrollment of female undergraduates in bioengineering. The literature attributes this in part to the human-centered applications of bioengineering and how that aligns with female student's agency beliefs," said Golecki. 

The team hypothesizes that soft robotics, a field in which robots are developed for healthcare applications, may allow female students to see robotics-focused majors like mechanical and electrical engineering, as a pathway to developing technologies and solutions with human-centered applications as well. 

Curricula in soft robotics would showcase a range of engineering principles such as new materials, sensors and controls, making it a potentially effective way to introduce and recruit more female students to the aforementioned majors. The team also envisions the soft robotics curricula to be able to help reduce the barrier of entry for students from other underrepresented groups. 

The researchers plan to work with middle and high school students local to Champaign-Urbana through a one-week, hands-on robotics course. The team will use qualitative and quantitative measures to understand how the soft robotics activities impacted the students' engineering identity. Currently, the team has existing relationships with Centennial High School and University High School in Champaign County. 

"High school is an important time in which students are beginning to develop identities that will direct their career paths," Golecki said. "In this project, we will use validated instruments that are designed to measure changes in those identities and beliefs about what students can do with an engineering career."

Bioengineering professor Karin Jensen
Bioengineering professor Karin Jensen

Both bioengineering professors and co-PIs Holly Golecki and Karin Jensen have long-standing interests in broadening access and inclusivity in engineering education. They have worked together on a number of initiatives including infusing mindfulness into engineering courses through technical design projects. Jensen was also the first teaching faculty at Illinois to receive an NSF Career Award in 2019 for her research on mental health in engineering. 

“I am very excited to continue to collaborate with Holly on this project," said Jensen. "Holly has led multiple programs to create impactful research experiences for students and I am eager to participate in this new program and study the impact in engineering education.”

Golecki said, "I’m fortunate to have Karin as a mentor and collaborator since joining the bioengineering department and I’m excited to learn qualitative and quantitative methods from her in this RIEF project."

This NSF RIEF grant enables Golecki to continue her ongoing efforts of empowering and engaging students through soft robotics. She served on The Grainger College of Engineering's IDEA Institute Anti-Racism Taskforce and leads a project that looks at building research confidence in students from underrepresented groups. These students have the opportunity to work in her lab on various soft robotics topics and present their research in national conferences. 

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This story was published July 30, 2021.