Spotlight on Success: Nina Robson

CSUF engineering professor understood the value of virtual teaching long before the pandemic.

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We all know the feeling of logging into Zoom to learn something when what we’d really like to do is meet up in the hall and chat, or trade ideas in the classroom, or sit down for coffee with friends to catch up. Sometimes virtual learning just doesn’t seem ideal. But, as one professor discovered, ideal is exactly what it is for some future engineers.

Dr. Nina Robson from the College of Engineering knows the upside of virtual learning; it opens the door to the nation and the world. A wi-fi connection has the power to connect students and instructors from anywhere, creating a global classroom. Dr. Robson calls it IDEAL.

IDEAL, or Increasing Diversity in Engineering and Labor-force, is a three-week summer outreach program created by Dr. Robson. She initially designed it for middle and high-school female students, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER. Dr. Robson was awarded the grant in 2018. The program structure follows the model of a well-developed research-based course with active learning, including reading and discussing scientific publications and hands-on activities.

“The program introduces students to authentic early cross-disciplinary research experiences in Biomechanics and Bioengineering with the main objective to enhance the students’ self-confidence and motivation in pursuing future STEM careers,” said Robson. “These are important attributes for the 21st Century skills STEM workforce that include critical thinking, leadership, communication, and collaboration.”

Dr. Robson was inspired to create IDEAL after attending an engineering symposium. She learned about research that reveals that if programs emphasize engineering as a source of societal benefit, rather than on technology, they appeal more to women and underrepresented minority students.

“Compared with the practice of law and medicine, mechanical engineers are often viewed as technicians instead of as creative practitioners of a profession that helps people,” said Robson. “Clarifying the role of mechanical engineers will attract more diverse students, such as females and individuals with disabilities, to join the field.”

In 2018, the year IDEAL debuted, the program was taught in person and aimed at female middle-school and high school students. The following year it expanded to first-generation and underrepresented STEM students. It also was offered virtually for the first time. Students as far away as Ithaca, New York, were able to participate. Little did Dr. Robson know that experimenting with a virtual program would become an essential teaching skill in the summer of 2020.

“The virtual format of the IDEAL program will hopefully allow for its future globalization, recognizing the participation of interested science and engineering faculty from any University and middle and high-students from any schools worldwide,” Robson said.

Graduate student assistants, Axel Alvarez, a Mechanical Engineering major, and Allison Serrano, a Biology major, helped teach IDEAL this past summer. Serrano said using Zoom to teach the course was easy for her, but due to the pandemic, she had to create videos as part of the program’s material. The pandemic also sparked different questions from the students.

“There were a few questions in the biomedical engineering portion of the program that were different from 2019,” said Serrano. “I remember one of the students asked if nanotechnology can be used to attack viruses.”

Dr. Robson says the overall goal of IDEAL is to underscore that STEM research leads to societal benefits and meaningful careers. So far, the program is working. Entry and exit surveys assessed the outreach program’s overall impact on the students’ self-confidence and motivation in pursuing future cross-disciplinary STEM careers. The results revealed that the “21st Century Skills” section had the most radical improvement. The “Your Future” section of the survey showed that the students became very interested in Mathematics, Medicine, and Engineering.

“These clearly show the impact of the program on boosting middle and high-school students’ self-confidence and motivation in pursuing future STEM careers,” Robson said.

She said her team is looking forward to next summer’s 2021 IDEAL program.

“I see IDEAL as a completely virtual program in the future,” said Robson. “I expect that the next step for the IDEAL team would be working towards increasing the ethnic and gender diversity, while at the same time expanding the scope of the program to seamlessly incorporate the convergence of science and engineering for solving challenging global problems facing our society.”

This article was originally published on the California State University, Fullerton Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs website.

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