Utah State University
The retention rate of engineering students is shockingly low. Most estimates suggest that as many as half of all college students who start out seeking a degree in engineering will drop out or switch to another major before completing their degree.
Dr. Idalis Villanueva has devoted her career to changing that statistic.
An assistant professor at Utah State University, Villanueva is looking at engineering education in a whole new way; and the innovative methods she is developing to educate and retain students in the discipline she is so passionate about are drawing national attention.
“Engineering is a beautiful career,” Villanueva declares. “It’s a needed career that has potential for enormous change. I see engineering as the next humanitarian career—one focused on collective impact and transformation.”
Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers
Villanueva was informed by the White House in early July that she is the state’s lone recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) in 2019. Considered the highest honor given to scientists and engineers by the U.S. government, the PECASE is awarded annually “to recognize and honor outstanding scientists and engineers at the outset of their independent research careers.”
A native of Puerto Rico, Villanueva has been at USU since 2013. During her time in Logan, she has directed her efforts toward improving the educational opportunities of would-be engineers from diverse social and cultural backgrounds, while also seeking ways to better prepare young engineering students for the challenges they’ll face as they move toward a college degree.
“We haven’t moved the needle,” Villanueva says. “Too few of us are taking a step back to reflect and ask: What can I do to make a difference? Engineering has a culture, it has norms—things that are assumed to be effective because they’ve always been that way. But the assumptions behind those norms are never questioned.”
Dr. Idalis Villanueva
Villanueva is a first-generation college student; graduating from the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez she went on to complete her master’s and doctorate degrees in chemical and biological engineering at the University of Colorado. Her personal experience with engineering education has led her seeking new perspectives on a curriculum that has remained “practically untouched since its introduction in the US in the early 1800s,” she says.
Villanueva focuses on classroom dynamics; the majority of her research is focused on recognizing and then eliminating “hidden curricula”— academic rules and social norms that are known among faculty, students and administrators, but not to individuals from diverse social or cultural backgrounds. The effects of hidden curricula often impede the academic success of underrepresented engineering students.
“If you are a first-generation student or come from a different cultural background, you may not be aware of the resources and opportunities that will help you succeed as a student,” Villanueva notes. “Many students and faculty from non-traditional backgrounds often struggle with making sense of their environment. They struggle to understand the predominant culture and perspective.”
In 2016, Villanueva was awarded a $722,779 research grant from the National Science Foundation that will help her and her team of researchers better understand the effects of hidden curricula in engineering programs at colleges and universities around the country.
The Career Award from the National Science Foundation constitutes a five-year-long project; and Villanueva says her long-term goal is to help engineering professors and students “reveal and navigate hidden curricula in engineering.”
“Inadvertently withholding information creates a power imbalance,” Villanueva says. “But by revealing hidden curriculum, knowledge becomes democratized. By revealing hidden curriculum, it loses its power since it is no longer available to only the students or faculty who are in ‘the know.’”