The Engineering Research Visioning Alliance has an ambitious goal to influence the future of engineering while helping to change its face.
The organization, founded by the National Science Foundation in April to unite the diverse voices of the engineering community in pursuit of innovative research and problem-solving, recently relocated its headquarters from Washington, D.C. to Columbia. Funded by the NSF, EVRA’s founding partners include members of the Big Ten Academic Alliance, the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research/Institutional Development Award Foundation, and the University Industry Demonstration Partnership.
ERVA named its first executive director last month. Jennifer Carinci, who has a background steeped in STEM education research, is passionate about expanding the reach of science, technology, engineering and math fields to all demographics. Carinci, who holds master’s and doctoral degrees in education from Johns Hopkins University with a focus in teacher development and leadership, brings an interdisciplinary approach to ERVA and the issues it is tackling — some of which may not be ones the average person would immediately associate with engineering.
Soon after being named executive director Sept. 1, Carinci explained ERVA’s mission and vision to the Columbia Regional Business Report.
CRBR: Tell us a little about what ERVA’s goals are.
JC: It’s really a first-of-its-kind engineering research visioning organization, which is really exciting. I love building things. I had an opportunity earlier in my career to be an inaugural researcher director at an accreditor which was kind of a novel position there, but I love being able to build and shape things, especially things that are interdisciplinary.
CRBR: That seems to fit in with your background, which includes your previous position at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and managed NSF-funded national initiatives.
JC: I do have a background in education and I really enjoy convergence across disciplines, which I think that ERVA really allows us to do. We have a really exciting group of advisory members, 36 Standing Council members from different disciplines of engineering. We’re really looking to bring the engineering community together with one voice to identify bold, new research directions.
CRBR: What issues will ERVA be tackling first?
JC: We have our first visioning event set for Dec. 7 and 8. The topic of that is the Role of Engineering in Climate Change. The way that we came to that was we went out and surveyed the engineering community. We cast a broad net to be able to talk to people across the nation and see what was on their minds and see what their priorities were. … Our plan is in December to convene experts from across the nation who are working multi-disciplinary across this big issue. What we’re looking to do is come out of there with use-inspired and basic research lines that we think should be taken up by the research community and perhaps suggested to funding agencies as a way forward.
As big as this issue is and as much money is going toward it right now, there are gaps in what is being worked on and where we need to go, or perhaps getting the right people who have never talked to each other in the room so that they are actually cross-pollinating ideas and not just working in discipline silos within engineering. We want to come out of there with some research lines that really find those gaps.
CRBR: Climate change is not necessarily the first thing you’d think of where engineering plays a role. Is that indicative of the kind of outside-the-box thinking at ERVA?
JC: That’s a good way to put it. That’s certainly where we want to go. So much of what we see today really is inspired by engineering, the technology that we’re using now, even something like GPS that we use every day to get to work or go places. You never know where that next big idea is going to come from. One of the things that we’ve emphasized here and that our Principal Investigator team is concerned about is making sure that our initiative is inclusive, that we’re bringing a diversity of voices on a lot of different dimensions.
One of those is early-career engineers. Some of the students in engineering working on their dissertation may have the next big thing that we want to pursue that’s not on anybody’s radar. We want to be finding those things, those out-of-the-box solutions. We want to be working in the spaces where maybe there’s been a little bit of research but it hasn’t been connected. We’re a network of networks and we really want to connect those dots across different ideas and disciplines that are often working in silos. We’re looking to catalyze the engineering community’s pursuit of innovative and high-impact research to really benefit society.
CRBR: How do we get more women and other underrepresented groups involved in engineering from an early age?
JC: One of the ways that we do that is through our partners. ERVA has affiliate partners signed on and is in conversations with many more – engineering societies and groups specific to women engineers as well as underrepresented groups in STEM. Seven out of 12 of our advisory board members are women, and more than half of our 36-member standing council are women. Right now in the U.S., about three out of four engineering degrees are held by men. That’s certainly something that we want to change moving forward to make sure we’re not missing out on a really important part of innovation. If we’re not attending to underrepresented minorities and making sure women are brought into STEM from a young age, we’re missing out on the potential innovation that our country really needs to move forward.
CRBR: Who are some of the women working with ERVA and its founding partners?
JC: Our Principal Investigator is Dorota Grejner-Brzezinska. She’s the first woman at Ohio State University to be elected to National Academy of Engineering. Her early research helped build more reliable GPS navigation and improved smartphone technology. At IUDP, our organization had a conference (where) Susan Margulies spoke. She’s the new head of the NSF’s Engineering Directorate. She was really inspiring about the need for mentoring for women. She mentioned something about a class that she had and the professor saying remember when you first worked with your dad on your car? And she’s sitting there in class thinking that wasn’t my experience. Angelique Johnson, on our Standing Council, is the CEO and founder of MEMStim, a medical device startup. She does a lot of work in education and is passionate about entrepreneurship and bringing more women and underrepresented groups into STEM.
CRBR: Tell us about ERVA Champions, through which people and organizations interested in engineering and innovation can subscribe for email updates, apply to be affiliate partners and contribute to visioning events at https://www.ervacommunity.org/get-involved.
JC: ERVA Champions can give feedback about our mission and research or nominate people to attend visioning events. We’re looking to get more people involved in all different ways. We’re really a partnership. We’re looking to connect all of these groups together. … It’s about convergence of ideas, where we can potentially get these solutions to the most vexing engineering and other problems that our society is facing
This artcile first appeared in the Oct. 11 print edition of the Columbia Regional Business Report.