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Who is ‘Minding the Gap’ in Undergraduate Engineering Education?

Who is ‘Minding the Gap’ in Undergraduate Engineering Education?

A brief review of the literature shows that diversity in science and engineering is important for many reasons, ranging from workforce needs, global competitiveness, and national security issues, to better science and social justice. Yet, despite decades of efforts to remedy and address the inequities in the participation of groups underrepresented in these disciplines, the disparities persist. Engineering is among the least diverse disciplines according to data reported by the National Science Foundation [1].  At the undergraduate level, Black engineering students are the most underrepresented group within the discipline according to the same source.  The representation index (RI) for Black engineering undergraduates in 2014 (the latest year data was available) was 0.186, compared to 0.377 for American Indian and Alaska Native students, and 0.453 for Hispanic students. An RI equal to one implies equal representation compared to representation in the U.S. population, an RI larger than one indicates that a group is overrepresented, and an RI of less than one indicates a group underrepresented. In this way, the RI demonstrates not only representation, but also the magnitude of over- or underrepresentation.

In terms of degrees awarded, of the 93,950 recipients of BS degrees in engineering in the US in 2014, only 3,599 or 2.7% were awarded to Black students. Of these 3,599 Black degree recipients, 691 or 19.2% were awarded degrees from one of the 15 ABET accredited engineering departments at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). In contrast, there are 630 some ABET accredited engineering programs at US colleges and universities. HBCUs produce more than their share of Black engineers and today I want to introduce you to a faculty member who contributes to this effort in an exemplary way. 

Dr. Lara Thompson is a scholar, teacher, researcher and an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of the District of Columbia.  Dr. Thompson’s credentials are impressive with a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. I applaud Dr. Thompson’s decision to be on the faculty at an HBCU, perform excellent research, be an exemplary teacher, and show dedication to making engineering a more diverse discipline. The majority of Thompson’s undergraduate students are minority and first-generation students, and she runs summer programs for high-school students from the Washington, D.C. school system. 

Here is an excerpt from Lara Thompson’s biography: “At University of the District of Columbia (UDC), Dr. Thompson directs one of only a few Biomedical Engineering degree programs at a Historically Black College or University.  Dr. Thompson is an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, the initiator and Director of the new Biomedical Engineering program (full-board and Department of Education approved) and the initiator and Director of the state-of-the-art Center for Biomechanical & Rehabilitation (CBRE) research laboratory at UDC.  Within her state-of-the-art UDC CBRE lab, she investigates rehabilitative technologies (such as sensory substitutes, mechanically stabilizing aids, and rehabilitation robotics) for individuals with mild to severe immobility (e.g., veterans, fall-prone elderly individuals, stroke survivors, and amputees), as well as the balance of healthy, able- bodied individuals.  Alongside her research, she interweaves teaching, outreach, service and mentoring.  Since joining the faculty as an Assistant Professor in Fall 2013, Dr. Thompson has been awarded three National Science Foundation (NSF) grants as the Principal Investigator, and one Department of Defense (DoD) grant as the Co-Principal Investigator, totaling $1.3 million. In January 2017, Dr. Thompson was featured as a Diverse Issues in Higher Education Emerging Scholar” [2].

Dr. Thompson’s websites at and reveal more about the research she conducts with high school and undergraduate students. When I talk about diversity to my NSF colleagues and others, I always show the photo (above) of Dr. Thompson’s students in her lab because it illustrates her commitment to diversity and broadening participation in engineering.

The HBCU-UP program congratulates Dr. Lara Thompson on her excellent work at UDC and we applaud her efforts to contribute to making engineering a discipline that is welcoming to young people who may not have seen themselves as engineers at one point in their lives.

With best wishes - Claudia

Claudia Rankins, Ph.D.
Senior Program Officer, HBCU-UP
Division of Human Resource Development
National Science Foundation

[1] National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics. 2017. Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 2017. Special Report NSF 17-310. Arlington, VA. Available at .



Photo Caption: Dr. Thompson (seated third from left) with a group of students in her lab.