Kelly J. Cross is a self-identified preacher’s kid. Her work is her ministry, and she’s using her research as a pulpit to amplify the voices of people in engineering with marginalized identities.
As an assistant professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, Cross aims to change the culture of engineering education, prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion. And now, the National Science Foundation is supporting her efforts with a Faculty Early Career Development Award, or CAREER Award. The five-year grant is designed to help promising researchers establish a foundation for a lifetime of leadership in their field.
“For me, it is recognition of the quality and value of my work so far, and the result of years of hard work and difficult conversations to move the field of engineering forward,” said Cross, who shifted gears as a student, changing her focus from chemical engineering to engineering education. “Equity, empathy, and excellence – the E3 – are core components of all my work as a researcher and scholar for supporting these conversations in engineering.”
According to Cross, when we start with empathy, we can create an equitable engineering environment that will lead to inclusive excellence and the development of wholistic solutions to complex problems.
Specifically, highlighting inequity in student experiences has been a consistent theme in Cross’s multiple projects that focus on different marginalized groups. For instance, she has researched and published on challenges unique to women of color in engineering. And in 2021, she led a group of STEM professionals to describe experiences being, or supporting, the queer identified in engineering in her book Queering STEM Culture in U.S. Higher Education.
Empathy is integral to her research, which emphasizes the voices of participants who critique the culture, rather than blame the students. And Cross intentionally strives for excellence in all of her research and scholarship – her papers on African American men and student stress are being used as exemplars in their field.
“The CAREER Award is a foundational grant for my lab, supporting my research and teaching philosophies, helping me continue to train the next generation of engineering education researchers,” said Cross. “It also provides credibility for my trainees and maintains the standard of excellence in research established within my department and the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech.”
But Cross is aiming to create impact beyond university campus borders. Her research can also be applied in government agencies and industry groups that are trying to address diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) issues. She provides online and in-person faculty and professional development workshops focused on culturally responsive teaching, managing personal bias in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and timely topics, such as mitigating power and privilege in the classroom.
Cross will use the CAREER Award to create a more efficient approach to training engineering faculty through development of GIVEN – Gaming Intervention of Values Engineers Need. The online gaming tool will track the evolution of engineering faculty beliefs about diversity, and the research team will assess the impact of the tool with both surveys and individual interviews.
“The aim of the gaming tool study is to increase the engineering faculty engagement with DEI efforts, increasing our understanding of strategic approaches for broadening participation and how faculty can effectively teach diverse students in STEM,” said Cross, who is particularly proud of the book that she had published last year.
Queering STEM Culture, released in June 22, was edited by Cross, Stephanie Farrell, and Bryce Hughes. The book explores the experiences of members of the LGBTQ+ community in post-secondary STEM culture, providing critical insights into progressing along socially just educational pathways. Since its release, Cross has been contacted by numerous students who have written to tell her that reading the book, “made them feel seen,” Cross said.
There is both a professional and deeply personal relevance to that kind of feedback for Cross.
“Identity has played such a significant role over the course of my life,” said Cross. “As I started my engineering education PhD, I learned that here was an entire field of study. And one of the goals of my career is to show how identity is related to engineering education.”