By  Jennifer McManamay
UVA Engineering mentors and City of Promise participants gathered for a photo during the four-week program
UVA Engineering mentors and City of Promise participants gathered for a photo during the four-week program. Top row, from left: post-doctoral researcher Grayson Johnson, Ph.D. students Bill Fahy and Sammy Fieser, and high school students Nyzir Cannon and Jaidyn Henderson. Bottom row from left: Ph.D. student Tori Vigil and high school students Briasia Booker, Grant Patterson and Josiah Patterson Not pictured: Ph.D. students Dean Yost, Geshani Bandara, Nadeesani Sirinayake, Ankit Dhakal and Meagan Phister and high school student Jaerron Johnson.

A new outreach program aimed at increasing diversity in engineering while helping students in the University of Virginia’s home community see a path to a fulfilling career has taken its first steps.

Charles Leroux, a chemical engineering Ph.D. student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, partnered with Charlottesville City of Promise, a community organization dedicated to ending generational poverty, to invite six local high school students to participate in a research project over the summer. Leroux had help from seven of his graduate student colleagues who volunteered to mentor the high schoolers, and faculty advisors who helped develop suitable research projects or lent their labs to the endeavor.

Students were selected based on applications articulating why they wanted to participate. Leroux also found funding to cover costs and to provide $1,000 stipends to the students.

"Diversity is necessary in a field like engineering where the best solutions are found by attacking the problem from multiple points of view."

profile photo of Charles Leroux Charles Leroux Chemical Engineering Ph.D. student

Over four weeks, the high-schoolers worked with graduate student mentors in the lab on some of the department’s cutting-edge research and made connections with faculty and graduate students who are willing to offer career advice.

“This partnership was an opportunity for our students to get a firsthand look into chemical engineering, outside of a typical school setting,” said Jermaine Dias, the high school pathway coach at City of Promise. “It created a lane for exposure that can impact a child’s trajectory towards choosing a career. Opportunities such as these are invaluable.”

The idea to create the program came to Leroux when he realized his own Ph.D. chemical engineering class year at UVA was made up of six U.S.-born students, all of whom are white, and six foreign-born students. Looking further, he found the National Science Foundation Center for Science and Engineering Statistics reported that in 2020, only 5.3% of Ph.D. students who were American citizens or permanent residents were Black, and only 9.6% were Hispanic or Latino.

“Diversity is necessary in a field like engineering where ideas are constantly evolving and where the best solutions are found by attacking the problem from multiple points of view,” said Leroux, who works in associate professor of chemical engineering Geoffrey Geise’s polymer membrane research lab.

Leroux plans to run the program again next summer. In the meantime, he also hopes to entice potential participants to attend the Department of Chemical Engineering’s spring-semester lab tours for local high school students.

“I’m hoping that getting that first introduction to chemical engineering will create some excitement for coming back in the summer to see if this is something they’d like to do,” Leroux said.

“We need to increase diversity in advanced degree programs in engineering across the country. We can start by reaching out to students in our local community who might be interested in discovering what they can do as a chemical engineer.”

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