Faculty member working to boost college’s diversity
Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tonya Peeples, professor of chemical and biochemical engineering, lives the College of Engineering’s tagline: “Be an engineer…and something more.” She is the mother of two grade-schoolers, a singer and active participant in her church, a member of the UI African-American Council, and an advisor for the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, among other things.

Peeples has mentored 50-some undergraduate students working in her research lab, and has received both a UI Collegiate Teaching Award and a National Science Foundation CAREER Award. Now, as the college’s first associate dean for diversity and outreach—she was appointed to the new position in June 2013—she is tasked with making sure that populations underrepresented in engineering fields are aware of the career possibilities offered through an engineering education.

What drew you to engineering?

When I was in high school, I was good at math and science and I participated in an engineering workshop at North Carolina State University. I really was drawn to the hands-on type of problem-solving activities and, in particular, to the chemical engineering demonstration. That got me looking at engineering as a field. Unfortunately, a lot of young people don’t really know what engineering is. Most people can identify with doctors and attorneys, but engineering is a bit more mysterious. So it was great for me to have that experience.

What was your first order of business when you were appointed associate dean?

As a female engineer and an African-American engineer, I had been involved in diversity and outreach efforts throughout my career, collaborating with people across campus to build community among UI students and to reach out to K-12 students.

There are quite a lot of people dedicated to student services in the college and within the institution, so my first order of business has been to build a team and organize our efforts. That involved hiring a director of diversity in K-12 programs and a director of scholarships and recruitment, and then figuring out how to function as a team and move forward. It’s very exciting. In some ways, it’s sort of a validation of all I’ve been involved in throughout my career. It’s also great to know that these efforts are valued and supported in the college, that getting more people to participate in engineering is seen as a key mission.

Why is it important to focus on these efforts?

To spur innovation and economic development in in our country, it’s important to have a workforce of people who are interested in and excited about engineering careers. Being part of the problem-solving community is valuable. Plus, you can go to school for four years and get a job at the B.S. level that brings in a relatively high salary. But, just as in my experience, there’s a large section of the public that doesn’t know about the opportunities that exist in engineering.

What are the biggest barriers to recruiting women and minorities?

In male-dominated fields like engineering, having role models is important. Also, we need to get students earlier in their career to stay with math and science courses. Research shows, for example, that a lot of middle-school girls interested in math and science end up going in a different direction. We need to make sure people see the value of math and science at an early age and are encouraged to pursue those disciplines. It’s not a given that all students are being encouraged equally at those levels. I believe that anyone can be an engineer—it’s a viable career, and it’s important to have families and teachers see that, too, along with the students themselves.

Is there anything you’d like to say to parents?

It’s very important for parents to continue supporting their students. I know it’s hard when they get to college—there is a degree of separation in terms of knowing all the details of what’s going on academically—but it’s really important that they encourage their children to reach out and connect with the resources that are available on campus. We want students to have an ease of wellbeing when they are here, and finding a sense of community can be a challenge for some, especially if they are homesick. The grounding of family support and encouragement makes a big difference.