Reset to Rise: A trio of HBCU engineering deans discuss leading during the COVID-19 pandemic
Reset to Rise: A trio of HBCU engineering deans discuss leading during the COVID-19 pandemic
Published June 16, 2021 By : Lango Deen
During Women’s History Month, US Black Engineer & Information Technology (USBE) magazine reached out to three engineering deans at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Below, Dr. Robin N. Coger, Dr. Joyce Shirazi, and Dr. Pamela Holland Obiomon reflect on what 2020 was like for them as academic leaders, how their colleges adapted, what they learned, and what the current goals are for programs in their colleges.
Dr. Robin N. Coger
Dean, College of Engineering
North Carolina A&T State University
“There is no question that, because of the pandemic, 2020 was a challenging year for academic leaders, faculty, staff, and students. We did lose students, but it is not always easy to tell if it was from COVID or not since the cause of death is not typically reported. The vaccination roll-out process is working very well. Our campus is one of the locations distributing the vaccine in collaboration with Cone Health, a local hospital system, and the Guilford County Health Department. I can personally attest to the efficiency of the process. I received my first vaccine about two weeks ago and will return for the second dose in April. Greensboro, NC, where North Carolina A&T is located, is also a FEMA location. This is assisting the state and the region in distributing the vaccine.
“At North Carolina A&T State University, it was also a year in which we realized our collective ability to pivot and adapt to new norms for teaching, learning, working, and meeting. As was the case across the nation, we shifted all courses to online in March 2020. Yet from Fall 2020, classes at North Carolina A&T were offered in-person and remotely. For the in-person execution, it was important to employ safety, sanitizing, and distancing protocols to keep faculty and students safe. For courses offered remotely, supports for teaching excellence were put in place to ensure that teaching quality and student learning were not compromised. One of the most difficult effects of the pandemic is that the people of the college lost loved ones and dealt with illness at a frequency and volume that had not been experienced in recent history. As a dean and a leader, this underlined for me that in all our institutions seek to accomplish, we depend on our constituents’ good health and safety—and that should not be taken for granted. Last year also validated the strength, dedication, and perseverance of the people of the college—and I am proud of all the successes they have accomplished. We are both in-person and online. This Fall 2021, the current intention is to be more like Fall 2019.
“The College of Engineering at North Carolina A&T has twenty-three programs—10 ABET-accredited undergraduate programs, eight master’s programs, and five doctoral programs. In fall 2021, four of our M.S. programs will add to their offerings by enabling students from all over the world to complete their degrees fully online. I am also pleased to share that for all eight of our M.S. programs; a new dimension is available this Fall 2021 that will enable students to be accepted into “MS+” in our College of Engineering to gain proficiency in competencies in-demand for their career trajectories in the industry.
“I am pleased to share that the Harold L. Martin, Sr. Engineering Research and Innovation Complex at North Carolina A&T State University will be completed this August. This is a 130-square foot facility that will expand the research footprint and capabilities of the college’s cybersecurity, autonomy, energy and sustainability, and health care applications. Dr. Harold L. Martin, Sr. is our current chancellor at North Carolina A&T, and he happens to be an alum of our B.S. and M.S. programs in electrical engineering.”
Joyce T. Shirazi, D.Sc., PE
Dean, School of Engineering and Technology
“Due to the pandemic, 2020 was largely a year of rapid innovation as an academic leader. This innovation included new modes of communication with students, faculty, staff, and the university community as a whole; ensuring student academic success in the face of financial challenges and family emergencies; supporting dedicated faculty as they taught classes non-stop synchronously online; and attending back-to-back virtual meetings, workshops, and conferences. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, as an academic leader, I stayed the course with virtual advisory board meetings, virtual town halls with faculty and students, and hosted virtual guest speakers from across cyberspace on a positive note.
“Although the campus did not completely close, it was not open to students, faculty, and non-nonessential visitors. As dean and an essential worker, I safely reported to Hampton University each day. Faculty from their homes provided 100 percent remote instruction to our students for the entire 2020–2021 academic year. For the fall, we had an early-start, condensed semester, with classes starting on Aug. 10 and ending on Nov. 20. The plan, as announced, is to reopen the campus for in-person instruction this summer.
“I learned and realized how much I missed the students and their energy on the campus. I also learned the value and true meaning of the African proverb, “it takes a village.” Various companies and organizations donated funds, equipment, and software to the School of Engineering and Technology to not only help in our efforts to update, upgrade, and create more innovative laboratory spaces but also with remote access lab solutions to enable our students to conduct experiments necessitated by COVID-19 safety protocols and to assist students who did not have adequate access to computers, connectivity, software, etc. This same equipment will be critical for us in providing hands-on learning opportunities for our students when they return to campus.
“The Hampton University School of Engineering & Technology is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a fully virtual and interactive experience on Friday, April 16. The anniversary celebration includes workshops, panel discussions, networking, and even a virtual evening gala. The anniversary event includes special presentations and workshops regarding topics such as artificial intelligence, autonomy, augmented reality in architecture, aviation and engineering, and the future of biotechnology. We are excited to hold this celebration despite the conditions of the pandemic. We have a truly storied history, and students, faculty, alumni, and a whole host of others will be able to hear the wonderful stories of how we have arrived at one of the top HBCU engineering schools in the country.
“Last year we launched our new cyber-physical track in the Computer Engineering program. The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering offers a Computer Engineering curriculum with a concentration in cyber-physical systems security. According to the Department of Homeland Security, cyber-physical systems security addresses security concerns for physical systems and internet of things (IoT) devices. These systems and devices play an increasingly important role in automobiles, medical devices, building controls, and smart grids. The protection of these systems is a national need. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, there is a serious talent shortage in cybersecurity. More than 1.5 million positions in the global cybersecurity workforce go unfilled. Hampton’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is prepared to help supply talent for this workforce demand.
“This year we are partnering with Syracuse University to establish a five-year master’s program. The Department of Chemical Engineering is working to increase the recruitment/retention of students and the research productivity of its faculty and students. Therefore, the department is currently working with Syracuse University to establish this five-year graduate program with four years at Hampton University and one year at Syracuse University to help with the recruitment of students. This MOU also will provide research collaborations between faculty members at both institutions.
“We became part of the Quantum Economic Development Consortium, a group of stakeholders that aims to enable and grow the U.S. quantum industry, established with support from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, part of the federal strategy for advancing quantum information science. We also became a founding member of the Autonomy Research Institute for Societal Enhancement, which promotes social welfare, including conducting research, education, training, and workforce development in air-sea-land unmanned traffic management, including urban/advanced air mobility and related artificial intelligence; educates students and citizens on these topics; and provides advisory service on these topics to policymakers, industry, and the public.
“Moreover, because of the undergraduate research performed by our students, they excel in graduate engineering programs. Today I received an email from one of our 2020 chemical engineering graduates noting how happy she was because she found out that she received the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship award, which “recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. The five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support, including an annual stipend of $34,000 and a cost of education allowance of $12,000 to the institution.” She was tremendously grateful for “the lessons learned in the Hampton University School of Engineering & Technology and the nurturing environment.” Reset to rise, a new day.”
Dr. Pamela H. Obiomon
Dean of Engineering
Prairie View A&M University
“As the dean of the Roy G. Perry College of Engineering, the year 2020 was extremely challenging. It was a year of uncertainty and constant change. As a nation, we faced many crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, an economy where unemployment was about 13 percent, and social injustice. In March, when the pandemic hit, university life dramatically changed.
“As leaders, we had to develop strategies to keep our college operational and our students, faculty, and staff safe. We had less than two weeks to move online. Given those faculty members were accustomed to face-to-face lectures, we had to motivate them to shift approximately 350 courses to online formats. A huge workload came with it. We worked in overdrive to keep students physically and mentally safe, fed, housed, and outfitted for virtual learning. I am proud to say that our remote delivery was successful.
“As leaders, we had to keep moving while always keeping our students’ needs front and center. We often worried about how students are feeling, what their anxiety is. We sent our last emails of the day around 1 a.m. We had to rush to provide infrastructure to deal with students who did not have high-speed Internet and personal computers and a number of faculty who lacked home computers capable of running online learning platforms. As we tried to get our students back home safely, we realized that many did not have a place to go.
“We dealt with health complications. Some students were grieving for parents and relatives who died from the virus. Others were infected themselves. We were concerned about food insecurity and the financial impact on the families of our vulnerable students. We had to figure out ways for student workers to work remotely and earn money.
“As leaders, good communication became crucial. We had to ensure that we communicated well to the students, faculty, and staff to manage anxiety. As we made decisions, it was critical to give a clear perspective on what was happening and what it meant to the college. The college adapted by revisiting priorities to ensure students, faculty, and staff could continue to progress and thrive. During the spring of 2020, we had to devise a plan to operate remotely quickly. It was an impressive pivot. Most of our faculty had not taught online before. We trained all faculty to teach remotely in about a week. Faculty and staff stretched themselves and used a lot of time to move the courses online. The pivot to online was difficult for students without reliable Internet and technology and dedicated places to study. We purchased laptops and broadband cards for students and faculty who lacked the hardware and high-speed Internet access.
“Shifting to online learning was especially difficult for engineering students, especially those who worked in laboratories or were hands-on. We leveraged the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to give our students remote access to the labs in the engineering complex from any device.
“To address ongoing challenges resulting from the pandemic, the university offered pass/fail to grade. We focused on quality and less on quantity. At the beginning of the fall of 2020, we taught online, hybrid, and face-to-face courses. We practiced the guidelines provided by the CDC. Near the end of the semester, we adjusted by moving classes to fully online after Thanksgiving to keep students at home.
Researchers in our Engineering Research Centers of Excellence began to look at ways to combat the COVID-19 virus. Researchers in the Center of excellence in Research and Education for big military Data InTelligence (CREDIT) spent more than four months gathering data and testing artificial intelligence and deep-learning algorithms to develop a new screening method using X-ray images for faster and more efficient COVID-19 detection. The goal was to provide quick and accurate tests to catch the virus early enough to maximize the effects of treatment and quarantine.
“In the face of the pandemic, we continued to move the college forward. We broadened our offering of competencies and rolled out the Engineering Leadership Program. We focused on non-credit opportunities for faculty and students. It turns out that the remote setting fostered greater attendance to seminars. This made it easy for students to earn credentials that become part of their portfolios. We developed certificate programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels in data science, associate project management, artificial intelligence, deep learning, and smart grid.
“We tried to support our students by starting a virtual lecture series to talk about strategies for navigating the challenges that COVID-19 had created, such as a monthly chat with the dean. We had excellent attendance at many of our virtual events. We also successfully executed online advising. I am proud of how quickly and well the college responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our students, faculty, staff, and researchers showed remarkable resilience and determination. The year 2020 was a confirmation of what I have always known but never experienced to this extent: ‘the only thing certain in life is that things change.’
“I also learned that every challenge is a learning opportunity. The adversity forced us out of our comfort zones and led to growth. Innovations emerged in response to the crisis. It also sparked other changes, like course design and teachings and the use of videoconferencing. COVID-19 has changed how we work for the better. We must always be open to growth and new challenges.
“I learned a great deal about myself and my students, faculty, and staff. How adaptive we are in difficult times. Our students, faculty, and staff were resilient despite the many challenges and were willing to step up to support one another. Students are more resilient and braver than we think. I worried about them adapting. I learned that we could survive almost anything that fate throws at us. This experience prompts me to think that some old molds can be broken without sacrificing excellence. A great deal of faculty had never taught online and never had any interest in doing so. Even though we will eventually go back to face-to-face teaching, hopefully, we will continue to teach some courses online.
Current goals for programs in 2021
“As we move toward a sense of normalcy in 2021, we will revisit our original goals to achieve our mission of developing engineers who will be the innovators and leaders of the future workforce. We plan to continue to 1) recruit and attract top faculty, 2) recruit and attract top students, 3) grow and strengthen graduate programs, 4) improve retention and graduation rates, 5) increase research expenditures, and 6) strengthen industry partnerships.”