Increasing Native Hawaiian representation in engineering is the goal of a multidisciplinary University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa project funded by the National Science Foundation. The $641,379 grant over three years will help the UH Mānoa team, led by Department of Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Woochul Lee, to implement educational and mentoring initiatives to grow the participation of Native Hawaiians in engineering.
UH Mānoa is one of a few Native Hawaiian minority-serving four-year institutions, and is the only institution in the U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands granting engineering degrees from a bachelor of science through PhD. Lee and his team believe UH Mānoa serves a critical role in supporting Native Hawaiians in engineering.
The researchers will use a cultural psychological approach to identify potential cultural barriers for entering graduate engineering programs, develop course materials originating from Native Hawaiian culture and establish multidisciplinary programs for professional development and mentoring. These resources for Native Hawaiians at the undergraduate level will support student retention, as well as encourage the pursuit of graduate degrees. The researchers will also collaborate with the Native Hawaiian Science & Engineering Mentorship Program to broadly engage Native Hawaiian students.
“This project encompasses various targeted programs, including developing curriculum materials, conducting outreach, and providing culturally-aligned mentoring and professional development workshops,” Lee said. “This project will reduce barriers to create an inspiring and nurturing environment for Native Hawaiian education in the College of Engineering, and assist Native Hawaiians to thrive in their future engineering careers.”
The project team includes Lee, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Albert Kim, Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies Assistant Professor Noelani Puniwai and Department of Psychology Associate Professor Joni Sasaki.
“Culturally-integrated instruction will improve students’ academic performance and enhance their sense of belonging in STEM fields,” Puniwai said.
Sasaki added, “This project will employ both quantitative and qualitative psychological survey methods to pin down possible barriers.”
“We believe that this project will open a next-generation Native Hawaiian STEM paradigm by holistically converging social science, cultural studies and cross-engineering disciplines,” Kim said.
Lee’s team asserts that strengthening Native Hawaiian representation in engineering will not only enhance diversity in UH Mānoa’s engineering programs and Hawaiʻi’s job sector, but also lead to develop a stronger nationwide Native Hawaiian engineering workforce. They also hope the project will benefit other underrepresented groups in STEM, including other Pacific Islanders, Alaska Natives and Native Americans.
This project is an example of UH Mānoa’s goals of Becoming a Native Hawaiian Place of Learning (PDF), Enhancing Student Success (PDF) and Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), three of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.
—By Marc Arakaki