Civil Engineering Professor Collaborates on NSF Grant to Mentor Underserved Students

August 25, 2022

By Holly Hinson
Dr. Tyler Mahoney, Assistant Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Dr. Tyler Mahoney, Assistant Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering

Dr. Tyler Mahoney, Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering, is one of five Principal Investigators on a five-year project that recently received National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. In collaboration with professors from University of Kentucky and Marshall University in West Virginia, Mahoney’s project focuses on creating an inclusive mentoring hub to enable pathways for underrepresented students from inner-city and rural Appalachian households to pursue engineering.

“It’s really important that everyone in the community has a seat at the table, that all the voices that are being impacted by engineering, or could impact engineering, are being heard,” said Mahoney, who grew up in Frankfort, Kentucky and considers being a Kentuckian to be a big part of his identity.

The grant proposal cited poverty and unequal access to education as cultural characteristics that often become obstacles for aspiring engineers in their home communities. “The grant is focused on trying to make sure that people currently underrepresented in engineering, from both urban settings, such as Louisville, as well as rural regions of Eastern Kentucky, have pathways to eventually become an engineer,” he said. “We need to ensure that those pathways are well-established.”

The project will reach directly into the university STEM curriculum and the classrooms of inner-city and rural high schools to introduce STEM concepts, research methods, and workforce opportunities to future engineers and scientists who currently have limited access to pathways to enter STEM careers. Focusing on marginalized students, the project will provide direct support by offering of mentorship and financial assistance to facilitate sustainable pathways into the STEM field.

The recruited students will participate in a 10-month multi-level mentoring program designed to improve their knowledge of STEM and support their transition to the engineering and STEM workforce. “What that might look like is faculty from UofL, UK, and Marshall University establishing relationships with high school teachers, and hosting virtual Hangouts to recruit students who have interest in engineering,” said Mahoney. “We can connect them with people who have overcome similar challenges that they might face,” he said.

During the five-year program, Mahoney said he anticipates the project impacting 35 undergraduate students, 35 graduate students, 35 high school teachers, and over 800 high school students across Kentucky and West Virginia. At the same time, the project will develop a template and collaborative network for a sustainable pathway bringing inclusion and equity to marginalized students from the inner-city and rural Appalachian regions.

Mahoney said he would be remiss if he didn’t acknowledge the helpfulness and support of his CEE Department Chair, Dr. Zhihui Sun, as well as his other university collaborators throughout Kentucky and West Virginia. “This research grant will bring opportunities to high school students in Kentucky to get to know and eventually get into the STEM fields, as well as faculty from UK, UofL, Marshall and perhaps other schools to collaborate on research and education,” said Sun.

Mahoney, who has been with the CEE Department less than a year, said his success in securing grants like this has been validating. “I feel like I’ve found the right fit here,” said Mahoney. “I believe a lot of junior faculty, and young professionals who might have PhDs, struggle with imposter syndrome. I believe it’s really important to talk about that, to know you’re not alone in that,” he said.