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Complexities | Communities | Change


The (EC)3 Lab is a team of students and faculty committed to research, teaching, and outreach within three interconnected areas:


Embracing Complexities:  We love wicked problems, coupled systems, socio-ethical complexities, and trying to make sense of all sorts of messy data. 

Some efforts currently making our heads hurt are:

Assessment - Developing a systems thinking assessment tool to help us to better understand the how well we are preparing leaders to thrive in the world of complex, interdisciplinary, socio-technical challenges.

Problem-solving - Understanding how problem solvers talk-the-talk and walk-the-walk of problem solving by exploring multi-modal data of video recordings of live problem-solving, think-aloud interview protocols, and brain activity measured through functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS).

Engaging Communities:  We believe good things can happen when diverse stakeholders come together around shared goals. We think often about our responsibility to others outside of our field and academia and we aim to be willing and committed partners. 

Some recent collaborations include:

Collaborating with Instructors - Investing in instructors of large foundational engineering courses (e.g., math, physics, and engineering mechanics sequences) to gather them together around course-level and institutional-level data and collectively develop action plans to improve the quality of the educational environment.

Collaborating with Industry and Middle School Educators - Collaborating with local industry partners and middle-school educators to design, implement, and study recurrent engineering-focused interventions with middle school youth in rural and Appalachian regions.

Enacting Change:  We are motivated by pressing challenges within the education system and broader society and we strive for positive change. this means we must sometimes work hands-on with stakeholders to achieve what we envision.

Some of our change-making action research includes:

K-5 Youth - Partnering with the Science Museum of Western Virginia and the Kindergarten to College Initiative to facilitate affirming experiences for K-5 youth as they explore the workings of everyday objects and consider how engineering influences the world around us.

High School Youth - Leveraging Virginia Department of Education and the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) longitudinal data to understand best practices and barriers in Virginia high schools that impact who goes into undergraduate engineering programs.

First-Year Engineering Students - Working with VT Engage: The Community Learning Collaborative in order to infuse project-based community-engaged learning into ENGE: 1216 Foundations of Engineering II, a required first-year design course for all engineering majors.


Dr. Jake Grohs is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Engineering Education and an affiliate faculty member to both Learning Science and Technologies and Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics. Grohs currently serves as PI of two and co-PI of two NSF-funded education focused grants which involve partnering with different stakeholder groups on continuous improvement or collaborative change (e.g., K12 teachers and administrators, university engineering faculty). His primary research interests focus on systems thinking, including how individuals reason through complex ill-structured problems, how educational environments develop systems thinking skills, and how collaborative groups might apply systems thinking to enact positive change.

In his personal life, Jake is a committed partner and proud father to family Courtney, Jude, Crosby, and Béla. 


This project will advance efforts of the innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) program to better understand and promote practices that increase students' motivations and capacities to pursue careers in fields of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) by producing empirical findings and/or research tools that contribute to knowledge about which models and interventions with K-12 students and teachers are most likely to increase capacity in the STEM and STEM-cognate intensive workforce of the future. This project is focused on a collaborative design, implementation, and study of recurrent engineering-focused interventions with middle school youth in three rural and Appalachian communities. The intervention efforts will broaden middle schoolers' participation and understanding of what engineering is, what engineers do, and help dispel the notion that it is hard and requires a love of mathematics and science. The project has the potential for recruiting future engineers who are unaware of their abilities and career possibilities because of the rural Appalachian communities in which they live. Broadening participation in engineering remains a critical national priority and this project has the potential to prevent the loss of smart capable students from engineering education and career pathways. The proposed partnership with school educators and industry experts will established an open-source engineering outreach curriculum (iFixit) and facilitate regular in-class interventions throughout the academic year.

The study design enables the examination of the participants and interventions across time and case-site contexts, where the data are collected at individual-level to look for changes over time while within-case and cross-case examination of the community-level impacts will be analyzed. The objective will be to achieve meaningful results of the two goals: Goal 1- to increase youth awareness of, interest in, and readiness for diverse engineering related careers and educational pathways which is a goal that hinges on a collaboratively designed and facilitated set of monthly interventions in a curricular setting and Goal 2- to build capacity for schools to sustainably integrate engineering skills and knowledge of diverse engineering-related careers and educational pathways aimed at both the individual-level with a focus on teachers as influential change makers as well as at the community-level focused on sustainable cross-sector collaborations. The project will offer in-school curriculum activities (interventions) six times per academic year in three similar rural communities in Virginia: 1) Bedford County Public Schools 2) Giles County Public Schools, and 3) Smyth County Public Schools. All case sites are located in rural areas or near Appalachia where there is limited industry, particularly advanced industry exposes students, parents, and educators to engineering careers. Leveraging local expertise is especially critical in this project because family pressures, cultural milieu, and preference for local, stable jobs play considerable roles in how Appalachian youth choose possible careers.

Award Link

A diverse and highly skilled engineering workforce plays a critical role in maintaining economic competitiveness and protecting national security. To achieve these aims, engineering programs in higher education must guarantee that curricula are both rigorous and equitable. As demand for engineering majors increases, so too do section sizes for foundational engineering courses. There is growing evidence that such courses represent significant barriers to student success and that the penalties associated with large classes can disproportionately affect women and underrepresented groups. Further, these educational environments make it challenging to implement evidence-based teaching practices known to be better for student learning. This project will build a learning organization ecosystem -- a grassroots effort involving engagement between faculty and departmental and institutional support structures to collaboratively identify problems and continuously, systematically improve the quality and equitability of the engineering curricula. During this project, sixteen instructors responsible for teaching approximately 4800 undergraduate engineering students in large foundational courses will be impacted. Beyond the instructors and the students directly impacted, research findings and project outcomes will be shared broadly so that other faculty and administrators might similarly improve their educational enterprise.

This project responds to national calls for undergraduate engineering to become more data-driven by exploring how existing, diverse data sources can be leveraged to enhance educational environments. Early efforts will focus on creating intelligent feedback loops, robust streams of existing institutional data (e.g., historical transcript data, student evaluations), existing instructor-level data (e.g., past exams), and newly collected data (e.g., surveys about how students spend time pre/post high-stakes tests). Such data sources will be triangulated and analyzed in a way that can be used by the instructors and the research team. Summer workshops will also be conducted to engage faculty and administrators in a participatory design process: (1) to build individual instructor action plans and (2) to construct an institutional change action plan collectively. Research efforts center at the intersection of learning analytics and faculty change to inform how others might productively leverage institutional data to improve the STEM undergraduate education system. The research team consists of educational researchers, engineering faculty, and administrative leaders from the college of engineering, institutional effectiveness, and learning sciences. Thus, the team is well-poised to not only lead this effort programmatically and from a research perspective, but also institutionalize project-developed strategies and outcomes.

Award Link

A robust and diverse engineering workforce is essential to national security and economic competitiveness, and current rates of higher education enrollment in engineering are not sufficient to support the need. Thus, broadening participation in engineering from underrepresented groups is a critical priority. To meet this need, this project focuses on economically disadvantaged rural students, particularly women and other underrepresented groups. Traditional models of career choice stressing interest as a primary career choice driver break down in rural contexts, where instead community values, local economic drivers, and strong family networks often play a critical role. As a result, this project shifts the focus from individual students to the communities themselves to understand how key stakeholders and organizations support the career choices of rural youth. With this knowledge, the investigators will engage target rural communities in participatory design workshops so that they might leverage their unique community assets to support more of their youth, particularly underrepresented groups, to pursue engineering careers.

The project begins with focus group and individual interviews with undergraduate engineering students from selected rural high schools that are known for producing high numbers of engineering majors. These data lay the foundation for interviews with key members of students' home communities and observations of salient programs or events to provide a rich understanding of the beliefs, experiences, and values of each community. Data analysis includes both within-case and cross case analysis. Further, the results of the multi-case study will be used to guide participatory design workshops with rural schools and communities in the region that do not typically produce engineering majors. These workshops will foster dialogue that explores factors that support or hinder transfer of practices to low-producing schools and identifies policies and strategies that would enhance each community's ability to better support engineering as a potential career choice. The study uses the southwestern region of Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains, as its primary focus, but research on career choice among rural students generally points to the potential transferability of the findings and methods. This project advances knowledge about engineering career choice and rural education by capturing the perspectives of community members who often play key roles in students' career and academic decisions, particularly in rural communities.

Award Link

Engineering is one of the fastest-growing sectors of the U.S. economy. However, there is a shortage of diverse engineers and scientists in this sector. This research investigation is designed to equip engineering education researchers and other important stakeholders with the knowledge and understanding of how school stakeholders can be better positioned and/or trained to support a more diverse population of students who choose to enroll in postsecondary engineering programs. By focusing on the high school level, the investigators will pinpoint how educational inequalities (as they relate to access to school resources and the role and preparedness of high school counselors and teachers in helping students choose engineering programs) will contribute to academically capable students' decisions to major or not major in engineering, especially among underrepresented student populations. This research project is both timely and potentially impactful in helping the broader engineering community identify the structural barriers that students often experience in different high schools across the state of Virginia and how these barriers may influence underrepresented students' decisions to major or not major in engineering, even when they possess the academic profile to do so. The project also has immense potential to render important findings applicable to key engineering and non-engineering stakeholders in Virginia and beyond.

Using a mixed-method research design, data collections were organized into various phases: examining quantitative data from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS) to explore high school and college enrollment student records for every Virginia high school student; conducting in-depth qualitative interviews of key school stakeholders (e.g., teachers, school counselors, etc.) at select high schools; collecting student survey data at the same select high schools to determine alignment between what interviewees say are influences versus what students say drive them toward or away from engineering; and collecting survey data from key stakeholders to complement the qualitative interview data. By collecting both quantitative and qualitative data, the research investigation will provide important answers to major broadening participation in engineering questions. Through workshops, policy briefs, K-12 academic conferences, and connections with specific schools selected as case studies, the investigators outlined a strong plan to share findings with K-12 practitioners and policymakers.

Award Link

1.    *Maczka., D.K. & Grohs, J.R. (in press). Leveraging Historical Ties Between Cognitive Science and Computer Science to Guide Programming Education. Computers in Education Journal.
2.    Grohs, J.R., *Maczka., D.K., *Soledad, M., & #Bagalkotkar, K. (2016). Exploring the Feasibility of an Educational Computer Game as a Novel Means of Assessing Problem Solving Competencies. Computers in Education Journal, 7(4).
3.    Grohs, J.R., *Soledad, M.M., Knight, D.B., & Case, S.W (2016). Understanding the effects of Transferring In Statics Credit on Performance in Future Mechanics Courses. Proceedings of the 123rd Annual Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, New Orleans, LA.
4.    Grohs, J.R., +Kinoshita, T., +Novoselich, B., & Knight, D.B., (2015).  Exploring Engagement and Achievement in Undergraduate Mechanics Courses. Proceedings of the 122nd Annual Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, Seattle, WA
5.    Kirk, G.R. & Grohs, J.R. (2016). “Civic Attitudes and the College Experience” in Soria, K.M. & Mitchell, T.D., eds. Civic engagement and community service at research universities: engaging undergraduates for social justice, social change, and responsible citizenship. Palgrave Macmillan.

For more information about the (EC)3 Lab, email Jake Grohs.