NSF-backed ‘team of teams’ raises stakes for master’s students

Rice, Texas Southern, Prairie View A&M, Jackson State partner to prep future engineers

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC)
Published Sept. 24, 2021

Jackson State University, Prairie View A&M University, Rice University and Texas Southern University will share a grant of nearly $5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support scholarships for students seeking master’s degrees in engineering and related fields.

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Mississippi, is a key partner.

The NSF project integrates internships and research experiences to prepare students for careers in engineering and beyond, according to Yvette Pearson, former associate dean for accreditation, assessment and strategic initiatives at Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering, who led the grant effort.

“Having an affinity for acronyms, I called it the ‘FIRE’ model: Flexible Internships, Research and Education,” said Pearson, now vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The grant will support 220 students from low-income backgrounds seeking master’s degrees in engineering, computer science, mathematics and data science.

Students will select from among disciplines in one of three technical tracks: biotechnology, sustainability and resilience, and digital twinning. The last refers to the use of a virtual model of a system updated with real-time data and used to support simulations and decision making.

The technical tracks were chosen because of their connections to ERDC’s strategic plan and their prominence as areas of national need.

“We are excited about the opportunity to bring the workforce perspective to this effort and help identify some technological challenges that will need to be addressed,” said Quincy Alexander, chief of the Software Engineering and Informatics Division at ERDC’s Information Technology Laboratory.

"I-ACED is designed to help students gain more from their graduate experience via industry internships, research experiences, mentoring and professional development, all while reducing the cost of a master’s program," said Matthew Wettergreen, lead investigator for the project, an associate teaching professor at Rice’s Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen and director of global medical innovation in the Department of Bioengineering.

I-ACED will provide $3 million in scholarships -- $750,000 at each partner institution -- plus funding to support scholar development, evaluation, research and project administration.

Azime Saydam, interim dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at Texas Southern, noted the focus on master’s students makes the program unique.

“This grant will enable academically talented, low-income students to pursue and complete master's degrees in computer science, mathematics and other STEM disciplines.”

“As we seek to increase the number of students who pursue advanced degrees in STEM, support from the NSF will help foster sustainability in academics and research,” added Jacqueline Jackson, an associate professor of computer science at Jackson State.

“Many programs support undergraduates or doctoral students, while master’s students are often overlooked,” Pearson noted. “This program intentionally highlights the cutting-edge research at our partner institutions. While many projects build their research studies around the students themselves, our research component focuses on the structure, the ecosystem we have created for I-ACED.”

“While scholarships may remove the financial burden of graduate education, we've long recognized at PVAMU that scholarships aren't enough to guarantee success for low-income or minority students,” said Sherri Frizell, a professor of computer science at Prairie View A&M. “We believe this unique partnership will allow us to collectively build a program that supports the student's successful matriculation through the graduate programs and into the workforce.”

Magesh Rajan, vice president of the Division of Research & Innovation at Prairie View, noted the program “will improve workforce development and innovation. In addition, this partnership offers more research experience to our graduate students and may likely inspire our master’s students to pursue their PhD at PVAMU.”

Another goal of the research component of the project, led by Eduardo Salas, professor and Allyn R. and Gladys N. Cline Chair in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Rice, is to understand how a “team of teams” approach brings together stakeholders from different organizational cultures toward achieving a common goal.

“Our partnership with ERDC is one of the key strengths of the project,” Pearson said. “Having a strong workforce partner who is deeply engaged in the project is a win-win for the four partner universities, for the students and for ERDC.

“Masters programs are most rewarding when students can leverage the experiences to launch into their next career steps,” Wettergreen said. “We expect this program to produce graduates who have added value beyond their core coursework in industry readiness and professional skills.”