By Mary Durlak
Release Date: August 23, 2023
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Matilde Sánchez-Peña has two loves: math and people. As an assistant professor in engineering education at the University at Buffalo, she is using her background to promote the inclusion, retention and promotion of underserved people in engineering.
She is the principal investigator of a project that recently received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to determine why, despite more than 20 years of investment in NSF programs seeking to promote gender equity, disparities still persist: only about 20% of engineering students and tenure-track faculty nationwide are female.
Corey Schimpf, assistant professor of engineering education at UB, is co-principal investigator; Juan Cruz, assistant professor of experiential engineering education at Rowan University, is also collaborating on the project.
Does it work for everybody?
When she argues for inclusivity in engineering, Sánchez-Peña said, “We are missing a lot of really important perspectives from the engineering table. It’s not just females, it’s also people of color, first-generation college students, people with disabilities. It’s not surprising that a lot of our engineering misses the insights these people could offer.”
For example, the first seat belts were designed using only a male body for a test-crash dummy. “Females were not on the designer’s spectrum,” said Sánchez-Peña. “The first seat belts were not safe for short women.” Such biases are implicit across engineering’s many applications.
“I became interested in engineering the usual way,” she said. “I was interested in math and science, and my bachelor’s degree is in manufacturing engineering. I have a master’s in industrial engineering, and another in statistics.” While pursuing statistics, she realized that she missed people. “In engineering education,” she said, “I can take a sort of sociological approach to engineering.”
While earning her PhD at Purdue University, she researched retention and promotion in engineering faculty across gender. The current grant allows her to continue to investigate ways to understand the persisting challenges in the retention and promotion of female faculty members in engineering departments.
Developing models by connecting qualitative and quantitative data
“Academic institutions are complex,” said Sánchez-Peña, “and policies regarding equity and inclusion are affected by many factors including interactions between individuals, departmental cultures, and institutional forces.” To address that complexity, her two-phase project will use two tools, Quality Comparative Analysis (QCA) and Systems Dynamics Modeling (SDM). Both methodologies are drawn from complex systems theory, a way of analyzing complicated organizational causes and effects.
In the first phase, Sánchez-Peña and her research team will use data from 15 Research I institutions (defined as having “very high research activity”) that have received NSF ADVANCE grants (a program to increase women in academic science and engineering careers) and 15 comparable institutions that have not. “We are using ADVANCE because it was established more than 20 years ago, so it will provide us with a lot of material to work with,” she said.
“The power of QCA is that it takes qualitative information from cases and transforms it into factors that can be used to explore potential causal relations mathematically,” she said. The second phase will use SDM and other complex-system methodologies that will bring nuances to the interactions identified by QCA. By using these tools, Sánchez-Peña hopes to demonstrate their usefulness in identifying ways to improve the effectiveness of policies promoting inclusivity, including but not limited to gender.
Her concern about unheard voices lies behind DAREtoCARE — the name Sánchez-Peña has given to her lab. “It stands for ‘Diversity Assessment Research in Engineering to Catalyze the Advancement of Respect and Equity,’” she said. The current project illustrates how she envisions using math, engineering and statistics to bring more voices to the engineering table.
“In engineering education, we deal with how engineers develop from K through 12, and then in college,” said Sánchez-Peña. “How do we ensure that their experiences are good and equitable? We want to change things for the better for everyone.”