The old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” is lived every day in the field of engineering and especially in Homero Murzi’s latest National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant.

Based on his personal experiences with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Murzi, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education (ENGE), will tackle the issue of building a sustainable system for educating the next generation of leaders in engineering education.

“It came to me that I should be doing work based on what I experienced in my own process, my experiences, and my own challenges adapting to different situations in the U.S. and also trying to make meaningful work in DEI,” said Murzi, a recipient of the 2022 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Teaching and an ENGE Ph.D. alumnus.

“I’ve been assuming a lot of DEI leadership roles, and when I think back about how they started, I don't think I was prepared for many of them.”

Murzi, who also leads the award-winning Rising Sophomore Abroad Program, brings a unique understanding on how to best educate the next generation of engineers and what global roles they might take on, including in DEI. For Jenni Case, ENGE department head, Murzi’s research focus on large engineering institutions is central to changing the status quo of who gets to be an engineer in the United States.

“With many years of teaching in an engineering program in Venezuela as well as industry experience across Latin America, Dr. Murzi’s proposed work identifies a key aspect of DEI work that’s not yet well understood or supported — that of the role and impact of leaders who hold particular institutional roles in relation to DEI,” said Case.

Murzi will begin by interviewing leaders across multiple roles, identities, and university communities in engineering programs across the country with the aim of discovering how the individuals assumed those roles; how they think and make their decisions; and even how their perceptions, values, and lived experiences influence those decisions.

Murzi also will interview members of national societies, such as the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers.

“I’m trying to get the most diverse perspectives because I feel like that’s key to really understanding how we can make sustainable change,” he said. “I always wonder why we keep having the same cyclical problems with broadening participation in engineering, access, and belongingness decades after decades, even when there is a lot of money invested, a lot of research, many publications, and a lot of initiatives.”

In his interviews, Murzi wants to hone in on three issues: individual perceptions, available support and opportunities, and structure and systems. He will use the results to create a national survey that will be disseminated to both Ph.D. students in engineering programs and early-career engineering faculty in various institutions and locations with a special focus on traditionally marginalized populations.

“I have seen two major trends on those in minoritized groups around DEI work,” Murzi said. “Sometimes they either feel the need to be involved because they want to fight for their people and want to make it better for others, or they’ve had a terrible experience and don’t want to engage. They feel it’s ‘not their job.’ I really want to understand the full spectrum.”

With the data collected from the survey, Murzi will design sustainable trainings for DEI leaders. And the data  also will provide a big picture of how individual equity and inclusion work across universities overlaps with his own, creating opportunities for mutually beneficial training collaborations.

To ensure sustainability for his instruction model — and to distinguish it from just another DEI training — Murzi wants to embed developed trainings into formal structures in the College of Engineering, such as the curriculum for Graduate Student Success in Multicultural Environments, a required course for nearly all engineering graduate students offered by ENGE.

“We have a lot of requirements for Ph.D. students: They need to be good at research, they need to be good at many different things,” he said. “But usually we don’t pay much attention to them being ready to teach diverse students or to deal with difficult problems they will face as advisors. And so, I think making it a requirement for obtaining a Ph.D. will help with sustainability.”

Murzi wants to communicate his research in an easily digestible way that anyone can understand. He feels his down-to-earth approach has helped him succeed in his current initiatives. Over the course of the five-year grant, he will build a website to host all his tools and trainings and will continue developing online resources, shared documents, infographics, and lessons learned papers.

He also anticipates using a storytelling framework to connect people to real situations in a meaningful way. DEI work is inherently challenging, Murzi said, because it’s “emotionally intense.” Whether in one-on-one conversations or DEI trainings, individuals emotionally connect with others who have been affected by injustice.

“It takes a toll on you,” said Murzi. “And from a leadership perspective, people want to see change happening really fast. If you’re doing this work meaningfully, it will take a lot of time to actually see the change, because you need to start by the rules. But in the long term, you can have an impact – it’s just not easy to see right away, but driving meaningful change makes it worthy.”

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