Excellence in Engagement
In the Kingsbury Hall foyer, 10 girls transform plastic LEGO pieces into walking think tanks. Alongside professional engineers and college students, they build and program robots that can detect light and color, hear and react to sound, and move with precision, among other intelligences. This is Girls Connect, the program introducing eight to 15-year-old girls to the field of engineering.
Dr. Brad Kinsey
"There's a great national, even international need to get students—particularly women and underrepresented students—interested in the fields of science and technology," says Brad Kinsey, UNH associate professor of mechanical engineering and Girls Connect mentor. Girls Connect and its parent organization, FIRST Robotics, aims to capture the interest of youngsters early on so that more enter these fields in the future.
When Girls Connect sparks an interest, participants may continue on in the FIRST LEGO League, where they design, build, and program LEGO robots for real-world scenarios, and compete with other teams for top billing. Kinsey's leadership in the programs is a facet of his service work, but he also sees it helping his profession.
"I am hopeful that this continuum will lead to greater numbers of students entering the field of engineering," Kinsey says.
And Kinsey understands continuum. Growing up outside of Flint, Michigan amid the rattle and hum of General Motors and later working in the automotive industry as a quality assurance engineer, he witnessed firsthand the benefits that derive from a streamlined process.
He took the idea of streamlining to a new level in 2005, after spending a semester in the University of New Hampshire Engaged Scholars Academy. The Engaged Scholars Academy is a semester-long professional development program for faculty from all academic disciplines. Participants learn about successful engaged scholarship—that is, collaborating with community partners on mutually-beneficial projects—through workshops, coaching, and hands-on practice.
There, Kinsey applied a synergistic spin to his teaching, research, and outreach responsibilities in order to maximize effectiveness.
"I had been volunteering for FIRST and Girls Connect before my involvement in the Engaged Scholars Academy," says Kinsey, "The academy helped me realize the potential for turning my outreach work into scholarship," he adds, noting that it also helped him network with faculty members across many different disciplines, opening his eyes to new opportunities for collaboration.
In a resulting partnership, Kinsey, UNH Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering Erin Bell, and Associate Professor of Education and Engaged Scholars Academy alumnus Mike Middleton, are working to determine the long-term impact of Girls Connect.
"We want to know if Girls Connect is effective in attracting female students to the fields of science and technology," says Kinsey, "and to find out how the workshops can be improved."
Currently, Kinsey, Bell, and Middleton are analyzing data and will publish it in the future.
"By combining my research, teaching, and outreach, I'm now more efficient in my role as a professor," says Kinsey, "and I can make more of an impact in all those areas."
"This gets to the very heart of what the Engaged Scholars Academy is all about," says Julie E. Williams, UNH Senior Vice Provost for Engagement and Academic Outreach. "Brad is essentially closing the loop with these various efforts—by engaging external partners, helping to advance knowledge in his field, developing new cross-disciplinary research opportunities, and enriching his teaching and student learning—all at once."
"There's no reason why your research can't affect your teaching can't affect your outreach," says Kinsey. "There's a synergy that comes from combining them into one."