Research isn’t always about creating new models or making landmark discoveries. It can also be about preparing for the future of a discipline by supporting students who will someday take over the field and make their own advances in things like transportation engineering.
One funding program that takes a special interest in this aspect of research is the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER). The competitive funding program focuses heavily on improving integration of education and research, and gives awards to projects that effectively plan for supporting such integration. Margaret Darrow, researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering, was awarded a CAREER grant for a project set to begin September 2012 in part due to her attention to underrepresented students. Darrow’s project will involve graduate and undergraduate Alaska Native students recruited through the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP). Students will get hands-on experience in the research itself and participate in outreach programs designed with the public and local middle school students in mind.
Margaret Darrow, researcher and assistant professor in the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering, collects soil samples during drilling.
Much of Darrow’s research involves aspects of transportation engineering including work in frozen ground engineering, frost heave, soil physics and thermal modeling. She has completed projects with Alaska University Transportation Center (AUTC) and worked closely with the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (ADOT&PF) on a number of transportation engineering projects.
Darrow noted the value of involving ANSEP students goes beyond just integrating education and research; it meets a vital need in the state by developing a home-grown crop of future engineers to help facilitate successful resource development.
“These students will be able to take this knowledge and these skills back to their communities to help them understand the resources and challenges right underneath their feet,” Darrow said.
Engineers of tomorrow
Education, particularly support for minorities and underrepresented groups, is a major focus of the NSF CAREER program. Having taught high school in rural Alaska communities for a few years, Darrow has an additional tool in her belt when it comes to effectively reaching Alaska Native students: First-hand knowledge of the challenges they face when heading off to college.
“Going out to bush communities and experiencing life in such remote areas gives you a better appreciation for the difficulties these students experience when coming to Fairbanks for the first time,” she said.
Researcher Margaret Darrow holds an ice core. All from the TEMP/W project, field work conducted during August 2009, when smoke reduced visibility to a fraction of a mile! We were installing thermistor strings at the Dalton 9 Mile Hill location. First, we drilled the holes and sampled and logged the soil and ICE coming out; then the thermistors went in.
While Darrow emphasized she is “by no means an expert,” she said the experience offered a better appreciation for the challenges students from rural areas face. Not only have they left behind everyone they know, they are bombarded with so many other changes: The food is different, the physical environment is different, and it can all add up to an overwhelming experience.
“It’s a lot to adapt to. To understand and recognize that I think creates a mutual appreciation between student and professor,” Darrow said.
And it’s not just social and environmental challenges: Often there are actual educational barriers to overcome. Darrow noted that many rural areas have a single high school teacher for the entire community. That means the curriculum is often based on that particular teacher’s strengths and background.
“If the teacher is really knowledgeable in English, but not math and science, the students may not advance as far in these areas. It’s not the teacher’s fault, but it does present another challenge,” Darrow said.
Darrow will partner with ANSEP to recruit undergraduate and graduate students to participate in her project, working on some of the actual research in the field. The hands-on experience is something Darrow said is vital to their education and efforts to encourage their pursuit of a career in engineering.
“They’re not just reading about engineering in a book but getting out into the field to experience it,” she said.
Darrow also plans to work with area middle school students and teachers on a geotechnical engineering module that will allow students to enjoy hands-on field work and laboratory exercises on soil properties. Participating ANSEP students will contribute to the outreach, in turn developing both research skills and a broader understanding of engineering in the classroom and as a profession.
“The outreach skills will hopefully help them transition into professional engineers. (This experience) will help nurture the skills to responsibly develop the resources near their communities,” Darrow said.
Close-up image of ice-rich soil. A new project headed Margaret Darrow, funded by NSF, will use innovative methods to gain a better understanding of unfrozen water in soil.
These efforts can help reach a big-picture goal for resource development in Alaska: To build Alaska’s engineering workforce. Darrow noted that in recent years rural Alaska has seen an increase in resource extraction and development but many projects have relied on a migration of engineers from other areas because “we just don’t have the engineers here.” It makes sense, she said, to utilize professionals from within the state because it will help sustain the communities and better ensure success of such projects.
“Students coming from these communities have personal experience with the problems associated with things like permafrost,” she said.
Darrow said students from rural areas are “the logical choice” for future engineering professionals for the state.
“Students from rural communities can integrate their personal experience into their learning of frozen ground engineering, and then apply what they have learned to engineering problems back home.”