Indigenous Black Engineering Technology PhD Project shortlisted for Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity nomination

Monday, May 9, 2022

University of Waterloo employees and students are invited to vote for one of three projects shortlisted for consideration for the Robbins-Ollivier Award for Excellence in Equity: 2022 Inaugural Competition. The grant will be awarded by the three federal research funding agencies—the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

One of the projects being considered is directed by Water Institute member Tiz Mekonnen, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering. The Indigenous Black Engineering Technology PhD Project, launched in January 2021 at the University of Waterloo with five other Canadian engineering faculties, is a bold collaboration designed to rapidly increase the presence of Indigenous and Black academics in engineering. Since launch, seven more engineering faculties have joined the IBET PhD Project consortium and at least three more are in the final stages of joining, making it the single most effective recruiting tool to bring Indigenous and Black individuals into the academic profession at the PhD level in Canada. With 17 IBET Momentum Fellows across 13 universities, the inaugural 2022 cohort represents the largest influx ever of Black PhD students into Canadian engineering and technology programs.

The IBET PhD Project is meant to alleviate institutional systemic barriers that have inhibited Indigenous and Black masters’ students from pursuing PhDs by fostering equitable and inclusive research environments. To wit, IBET Momentum fellowships of $30,000 per year for five years are provided, and each IBET fellow self-selects an industry/academic mentor. Moreover, the fellows can pursue an industry internship while pursuing their PhD through a special reduced fee supported by MITACS. There are approximately 60 mentors who have enthusiastically offered their time and support. These prestigious Fellowships will allow the recipients to pursue advanced degrees and undertake both traditional and non-traditional areas of research without incurring financial hardship.

Funding for the IBET PhD Program currently comes from consortium membership dues which cover program admin, etc., but this current funding does not cover outreach into Indigenous communities or an enhanced conference.

Based on the successful US-based PhD Project created to bring more Black/Latinx/Native American academics into the business school environment, the IBET PhD Project is expecting to change the current dismal state of Indigenous and Black academics, industry scientists, government policy advisors, etc. in STEM. In early 2021, there were fewer than 15 Indigenous or Black faculty members in engineering and technology programs in Ontario universities. Within five years, the IBET PhD Project will increase the Indigenous and Black faculty candidate pool substantially. With Black and Indigenous professors at the front of the class, we anticipate more Indigenous and Black students to be attracted to undergraduate engineering and technology programs, thereby increasing diversity in the entire talent pipeline.

Conceived at Waterloo Engineering, the inaugural director, Tiz Mekonnen, has recently been unanimously re-appointed by consortium members for the next three years, with UWaterloo continuing as the host institution. This endorsement of Dr. Mekonnen’s remarkable efforts to recruit seven more universities to the program reveals the appetite and enthusiasm engineering faculties have for this type of program. It is an actionable equity, diversity and inclusion program that meets significant EDI objectives for these faculties. For an overview of student/industry/academic desire and engagement watch this video.

If the $100,000 Robbins-Ollivier grant is obtained, Tiz Mekonnen, along with his ½ time assistant and ½ Mitacs business development person, will work with the Waterloo Engineering advancement team (with the full endorsement and support of Dean Mary Wells and Associate Dean of Outreach, Equity and Diversity (Mary Robinson)) to enhance the reach of the program to recruit Indigenous students and working professionals, as currently only one of the IBET Momentum Fellows identifies as Indigenous. We will also create and deliver a national conference to be held at Waterloo, to further promote and engage fellows, mentors, industry, and academics. We will hire Indigenous and Black subcontractors to assist with design, A/V and other conference requirement to further expand our inclusive hiring objectives.

With the $100,000 Robbins-Ollivier Award, the IBET team could undertake the following program enhancements:

  • Conference/Workshop Organization
  • Promotion/marketing for recruiting
  • Freelance writer/photographer Black and/or Indigenous contractors
  • Travel and Indigenous engagement recruitment budget for Director
  • Cultural competency training for the Fellows/supervisors/mentors
  • Indigenous Elders recruitment

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