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Dark Matters: Metaphorical Black Holes that Affect Ethnic Underrepresentation in Engineering

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Dissecting the Nuances that Hinder Broad Participation in Engineering

Tagged Division

Minorities in Engineering

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Paper Authors


Renetta G. Tull University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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Renetta Garrison Tull is Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Student Professional Development & Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC: An Honors University in Maryland), where she is the Co-PI and Founding Director for the National Science Foundation’s PROMISE: Maryland’s Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate (AGEP) for the 12 institutions in the University System of Maryland, and Co-PI Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Bridge to the Doctorate at UMBC. Dr. Tull has worked with thousands of students from Alaska to Puerto Rico, and in Latin America through graduate school preparation workshops that have been sponsored by The National GEM Consortium, National Society of Black Engineers, Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers, Society for the Advancement of Chicano, and Native American Scientists, American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the Alliance/Merck Ciencia Hispanic Scholars Program. She has presented workshops on graduate school admissions, “The Success Equation,” STEM initiatives, and PhD Completion in Panama, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, Puerto Rico, and schools across the United States. Tull is on the board of advisors for the PNW-COSMOS Alliance to increase the number of American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students who complete STEM graduate programs, and is a speaker on “GRADLab” tour with the National GEM Consortium, giving talks across the US each Saturday morning during the Fall. Tull researched speech technology as former member of the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has co-authored several publications on achievement in STEM fields, and is a mentoring consultant for Purdue, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, and MIT. She co-leads the “ADVANCE Hispanic Women in STEM” project in Puerto Rico, and the Latin and Caribbean Consortium of Engineering Institutions’ (LACCEI) “Women in STEM” forum. Tull was a finalist for the Airbus/Global Engineering Deans Council Diversity Awaard. She is a Tau Beta Pi “Eminent Engineer.”

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Damon L Tull

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Damon L. Tull is an author, inventor, and STEM education advocate with broad experience in academic, government, and corporate research environments. He has developed and managed advanced technologies as a professor, a consultant, and as the founder of two high technology start-up ventures. He is the author of dozens of publications, granted patents, and technical contributions in the field of digital image and video processing and computer vision. Tull serves as a consultant to numerous engineering research and higher education federal government agencies and non-profit organizations. Tull holds the B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering from Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.

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Shawnisha Hester University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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Shawnisha S. Hester is an Evaluation and Assessment Coordinator. She earned both her BA in Psychology and MA in Applied Sociology from University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She went on to complete her MSW from University of Maryland School of Social Work. Her research interests focus on using qualitative research methods that measure various phenomena and making connections via an interdisciplinary approach, qualitative evaluation and assessment measurements, increasing the number of minorities in STEM fields, and program development at the graduate level. She has had the opportunity to present at a regional and national conference and she has conducted research internationally. In addition, Ms. Hester is a licensed graduate social worker (LGSW) in the state of Maryland and provides outpatient mental health treatment to members in underserved communities. Contact information:

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Anthony Michael Johnson University of Maryland Baltimore County

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Anthony M. Johnson, PhD
Director, Center for Advanced Studies in Photonics Research (CASPR), Professor of Computer Science & Electrical Engineering (CSEE) and Professor of Physics,
University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC)

Uses ultrashort pulse lasers to investigate the ultrafast photophysics and nonlinear optical properties of bulk, nanoscale and quantum well semiconductor structures, ultrashort pulse propagation in fibers and novel waveguide structures and high-speed lightwave systems. As Deputy Director of the NSF Engineering Research Center (ERC) MIRTHE (Mid-Infrared Technologies for Health and the Environment) [2006-2016], our group uses femtosecond mid-infrared pulses of light to study the gain dynamics and nonlinear optical properties of active quantum cascade lasers (QCLs) and other mid-infrared devices. Recent research involves the use of ultrashort pulses of light for laser-induced inactivation of murine norovirus samples, which are a leading cause of food-borne illness. Collaborative discussions are underway to utilize laser-enhanced thermal imaging to detect breast and prostate cancer tumors in mouse models. Served as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Optics Letters (1995-2001) and elected 2002 President of the Optical Society (OSA); Co-Contributing Editor (2011 - ) OSA Optics & Photonics News (OPN) column “Promoting Diversity in Optics.” Professional society service includes Chair of the APS (American Physical Society) Committee on Minorities in Physics (92 & 93); Steering Committee Member of the APS Minority Bridge Program (2010 - ); Chair of the APS Bridge Program’s National Advisory Board (2015 - ); founding member of the Editorial Board of the open access journal Physical Review X (2011- 2018); Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer (2011-2013); Elected Member of the APS Nominating Committee (2016-2018). Member, Steering Committee of the International Year of Light and Light-based Technologies (IYL2015) for the period 2014-2016; Member of the UMBC Executive Committee on the Recruitment, Retention and Advancement of Underrepresented Minority Faculty (2011 - ); City College of New York (CCNY) Honorary Doctorate (June 2011). A Fellow of the following professional organizations: AAAS, APS, IEEE, OSA and the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP).

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Orbits surrounding engineering departments can have negative effects on diverse scholars, and challenges related to broadening participation in engineering can be metaphorical black holes. As an example, inadequate mentoring can cause graduate students to leave engineering degree programs. However faculty mentoring can be influenced by cultures within departments or colleges, under the leadership of chairs and deans respectively. Problems that diverse graduate engineering students experience, and positions that faculty take regarding these experiences, can be described loosely using physics metaphors, e.g., dark matter, black holes, Massive Compact Halo Objects (MACHOs), Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs), and event horizon. Dark matter doesn’t emit light and includes MACHOs and WIMPs. MACHOs in turn can consist of small stars, black holes, and brown dwarfs (objects ranging in size between the largest planet Jupiter and a small star.) Black holes are regions in outer space where the force of gravity is so strong that light is unable to escape. Some black holes are a result of dying stars. The event horizon is a boundary that marks the limits of a black hole, and nothing that enters a black hole can get out, or be observed from outside of the event horizon. Metaphorically, black holes are areas where students experience turmoil (e.g., implicit bias, lack of mentoring) that leads to attrition. Professors’ views outside of the event horizon, the black hole’s boundary, don’t reveal the realities inside of the black hole. The correlation to physics is that at the event horizon, objects that approach black holes are viewed as being suspended in animation. Outside of the event horizon, it isn’t possible to see what is happening inside of the black hole. Metaphorically, the person falling into the black hole is being obliterated, however outside observers don’t see the damage because events past the event horizon are only evident to the student inside of the black hole.

Metaphorical black holes can be avoided by developing constructs that develop students’ STEM identity such that the gravitational pull (the invisible force that causes massive objects to pull other objects towards them) is strong enough to withstand biases and gaps in mentoring. Graduate student professional development programs that infuse diverse external mentors into students’ environments can provide thrusts that avoid black holes. In one NSF-program, data showed that Black and Latino graduate students in engineering and IT experienced a sense of mentoring in external workshops that they didn’t regularly receive within departments. Further, these seminars influenced students to strengthen their STEM identity. These kinds of interventions metaphorically return us to physics, as objects can avoid destructive black holes if they are thrust into orbits that are far enough away from the event horizon. This paper uses physics to describe problems that occur within graduate student and faculty mentor relationships, with emphasis on experiences from underrepresented students. Physics metaphors coupled with social science research and graduate student data present an interdisciplinary approach to demonstrate that student motivation and success are possible with purposeful attention to the academic environment.

Tull, R. G., & Tull, D. L., & Hester, S., & Johnson, A. M. (2016, June), Dark Matters: Metaphorical Black Holes that Affect Ethnic Underrepresentation in Engineering Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26636

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