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Professor Coleen Carrigan Wins Prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award

A Cal Poly professor researching why racial and ethnic minorities and women are underrepresented in engineering and computer science careers has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation — one of NSF’s most prestigious awards.

Coleen Carrigan

Professor Coleen Carrigan, who teaches anthropology and classes in the science, technology and society program, will use the $571,000 CAREER award over five years to research the cultures of different subfields in engineering and computer science (ECS). She and her student research assistants will systematically compare behaviors and customs in the subfields to better understand why some are more successful than others in welcoming and retaining a more diverse workforce.

Carrigan hypothesizes that the variation is related to the value placed on the technical aspects of ECS in comparison to the value placed on the social aspects and the common bias that dominant groups are better suited for careers in the technical realms.

She will also examine attitudes regarding race and gender and assess the elements of the culture that foster or challenge inequitable power relations.

“My long-term goal is to understand how cultural values and practices allow segregation to persist in engineering and computer science,” Carrigan said. “I will use my findings to develop educational tools that help bring about institutional transformations.”

To gather data, Carrigan will attend academic conferences, conduct life history interviews with women in the different subfields, and talk with leaders at ECS learning institutions. The award also allows Carrigan to expand her “Advancing Cultural Change” research lab, in which students engage in ethnographic research that investigates many of the same subcultures at Cal Poly.

Christopher Kitts, Cal Poly’s interim dean of research, said Carrigan is the first researcher in Cal Poly’s College of Liberal Arts to receive the highly coveted honor.

“Coleen Carrigan’s NSF CAREER Award places Cal Poly at the leading edge of applying social science research to understanding workforce equity issues in engineering — an entirely appropriate cross-disciplinary effort at this highly collaborative university,” Kitts said.

“CAREER Awards are a recognition by the National Science Foundation, and the eminent scholars who review applications, that our early career faculty have the expertise, training and scientific insight to merit five continuous years of funding as a launch pad for their future careers in science,” Kitts added. “NSF is making an investment in the future of the nation by investing in these young scholars.”

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