Battelle grants will advance projects focused on kids

Posted: June 12, 2019

Two College of Engineering researchers have received grants from the Battelle Engineering, Technology and Human Affairs (BETHA) Endowment.

Led by Professors Rachel Louis Kajfez and Kevin Passino, the projects are two of just four selected to receive BETHA funding in 2019. The annual competition supports projects that examine the complex relationship between science and technology on society and cultural issues.

Girl Scouts
photo courtesy of Girl Scouts of Western Ohio

Closing the engineering gender gap

Despite years of effort, women have remained significantly underrepresented in engineering. In order to increase the number of women in the field, girls’ interest must be engaged long before they apply to college, said Kajfez, an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education.

Her project, “Inspiring Future Engineers through Girl Scout Leader Training,” will investigate how Girl Scout engineering badges and journeys impact girls’ views of themselves as future engineers. In 2017, the Girl Scouts released new engineering programming, available across the country and at all age levels. However, because troop leaders come from a variety of backgrounds, engineering concepts may be daunting for some leaders to implement, according to Kajfez.

Using information from interviews with and observations of middle school Girl Scout troops, the research team will develop evidence-based training for troop leaders to support girls in their engineering development. Helping young women envision themselves as future engineers will bring more females into the engineering field and assist in closing the gender divide.

Rachel Kajfez

“This work will complement my research related to motivation and identity, further expanding it to informal K12 learning,” said Kajfez. “By the end of this project, we hope to have directly increased girls’ interest in engineering through our findings and leader training. We’re really excited to get started!”

Collaborators on the project included Engineering Education Graduate Research Associate Abigail Clark, and Education and Human Ecology Associate Professor Karen Irving. The team plans to collect data during the 2019-2020 academic year, with training development to begin the following year.

Reducing stress among children

Passino’s research also aims to support children—specifically preschoolers who have experienced a traumatic event. Approximately one third of children have had an adverse childhood experience (ACE) before their sixth birthday. This is particularly true among children of color and those in lower-income homes, said Passino, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Kevin Passino

Children who have experienced ACEs enter the classroom on constant alert for threats, which can interfere with their ability to learn and feel safe. Passino’s project, “Adaptive Ambience Technology in the Preschool Classroom for Children Exposed to Trauma” aims to reduce trauma-induced stress in vulnerable children by altering their environment.

The first part of the project will document stress levels of a local preschool classroom by monitoring the children’s heart rate and body movements. The second part will capitalize on research suggesting that sound and light color can impact stress. Researchers will develop an app that will provide teachers with real-time stress data on each child, as well as the overall stress level in the room. The app can be used either manually or automatically to adjust the lighting in the room or play sounds, like those found in nature, to help reduce stress levels.

preschool child drawing on paper

“Our hypothesis is that the fully automatic mode will provide the greatest overall stress reduction as measured by the classroom’s stress biodata,” said Passino, who plans to continue building on the project. “We are working right now to write a proposal on exactly this approach to the National Institutes of Health. Pilot studies will be conducted this summer and in September to help make our case.”

Collaborators on the project include faculty from the College of Education and Human Ecology and the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design.

Along with the potential benefits to young children, Passino said adaptive ambience technology could eventually be implemented in other schools and settings, like homes and offices.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications |