Brian Burt, an assistant professor in the School of Education, will receive the NSF CAREER award, the National Science Foundation’s most esteemed recognition for junior faculty members conducting scientific research. Photos by Ryan Riley.

Iowa State professor to lead ‘transformative’ NSF project

An Iowa State University faculty member will receive the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s most esteemed recognition for junior faculty members conducting scientific research.

Brian Burt, an assistant professor in the School of Education, is the recipient of a five-year, $569,702 Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) award, which supports early career development activities of teacher-scholars who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century.

The grant will support Burt’s research on leveraging learning and engineering identity to broaden participation of black males in colleges of engineering.

“The findings from this work have immense implications for transformative change, such as equipping Colleges of Engineering with the needed knowledge and understanding to better serve black male graduate students and help these students to persist in engineering,” the National Science Foundation award abstract states.

“Equally important, the new theory generated from this project will offer engineering administrators, faculty, and staff important insights on how to broaden engineering participation among African-American males.”

Five-year mission to create new knowledge

Burt joins a crew of early career faculty members nationwide who will embark on a five-year mission to seek new understandings and technologies, and create knowledge that no one has had before.

Like other awardees, he was chosen for his innovative thinking and academic excellence. But he and other researchers are also recognized for their diverse perspectives, which are necessary to help solve humanity's grand challenges.

Burt’s recognition is unique because the award is more regularly awarded to faculty members in engineering, chemistry, physics, or computer science.

Of about 100 Iowa State faculty who have received the NSF CAREER award since the program started in 1995, Burt is only the third College of Human Sciences faculty member — along with former assistant professors Beth Herbel-Eisenmann and Corey Drake — to receive the award, according to the ISU Office of Sponsored Programs Administration.

In addition, this is only the third CAREER award funded by the National Science Foundation’s Broadening Participation in Engineering program.

“Both the reviewers and I were very excited about Professor Burt’s CAREER project,” said James L. Moore III, program director of Broadening Participation in Engineering within the Engineering Directorate at the National Science Foundation.

“His project … will generate new knowledge on the educational experiences and institutional barriers that inhibit black males’ sustained participation in engineering, and will identify effective strategies that help black male students develop strong identity and commitment to engineering, particularly at the graduate level,” Moore said.

Largest aggregation of qualitative data

The research will include observations and interviews with 40 participants at the University of Maryland-College Park, Georgia Tech, North Carolina A&T State University, and Virginia Tech.

Burt aims to uncover new insights into how students’ experiences — in a variety of educational contexts — shape the evolution of their engineering identities, and how that relates to their success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

“This CAREER project, which represents the largest aggregation of qualitative data on black males in engineering graduate programs, will contribute to the field's understanding of how African-American males develop their perceptions of what it means to be an engineer,” the abstract states. “It is also likely to pinpoint key mechanisms that improve their academic retention and success.”

Brian Burt’s research group. Photo by Ryan Riley.

Graduate students and full-time professionals in Burt’s research group will play a key role in advancing his research. As part of this grant, he will mentor undergraduate students interested in gaining research experience. The project includes contributors on and off campus.

“I am fortunate to have assembled a dream team of people who will help me be successful in this five-year project,” Burt said. “Included is an advisory board comprised of national scholars and leaders in STEM education and black men’s health, an Iowa State University peer review team, campus-wide programming partnerships, and a decorated ISU professor who will serve as a CAREER coach to help me balance research, teaching, service, and work-life balance.”

The project also includes a five-year workshop/webinar series aimed at broadening participation of black men in engineering, which will be hosted at Iowa State University starting this fall.

Bringing diversity to STEM

Iowa State is a leader in bringing more diversity to STEM — not only through outreach, partnerships, scholarships, and conferences, but with research aimed at systemic change across colleges in the Midwest and nationwide.

In addition to the CAREER grant project, Burt is on a team that includes School of Education faculty and staff members Sarah Rodriguez, Lorenzo Baber, Mary Darrow, Rosemary Perez, and Mari Kemis who will for the next five years lead the research components of four National Science Foundation grants totaling $11.6 million, all aimed at increasing diversity in STEM.

The latest National Science Foundation award is yet another feather in the cap for Burt, who last May became part of an elite group of scholars considered the strongest education researchers in the field when he received the 2016 Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship from the National Academy of Education.

That fellowship ends in August, while research under the National Science Foundation grant runs from Aug. 1, 2017 to July 31, 2022. The CAREER award will cover research costs and compensation for Burt, graduate and undergraduate students, survey respondents, domestic travel, materials, and supplies.

I, personally, look forward to watching Professor Burt soar in higher education by advancing knowledge on broadening participation of African-American male graduate students in engineering,” Moore said.