College of Engineering News Room

Engineering Faculty Members, PhD Candidate Discuss Technology-focused Research at 2021 USF Institute on Black Life Conference

Collection of intro slides from engineering faculty members at ibl 2021

Instructor Jonathan Gaines, PhD (top), Associate Professor Sylvia Thomas, PhD (middle), and doctoral candidate Lindsay Fields (bottom) presented current research projects on February 2 and 3 at the annual USF Institute on Black Life Conference.

by Russell Nay

Across the two days of the 2021 USF Institute on Black Life Conference this February, two USF College of Engineering faculty members and a current doctoral candidate presented research encouraging the development of technical and leadership skills for Black students across STEM fields as well as addressing anti-Black racism. All three research projects are part of the 23 that make up the USF Research Task Force on Understanding and Addressing Blackness and Anti-Black Racism in our Local, National and International Communities, announced by USF in September 2020.

Presented by Department of Mechanical Engineering Instructor Jonathan Gaines, Engineering Identity Development of Black Teachers and Students Through the PHASES of Success Design Process and AREN Technology introduces a successor to the Bulls-EYE Mentoring Program and the PRIDE robotics camp.

In partnership with NASA, Camp AREN — named after the NASA’s AEROKATS & ROVER Education Network program — will continue its predecessors’ mission of developing the engineering identities of local middle schoolers, engineering undergrads and middle school teachers with a new focus on environmental science and design.

Gaines said that while the PRIDE robotics camp was cut short by the global pandemic, Camp AREN will be held entirely online over the course of three weeks and hire 10 Black teachers as mentors to work with 10 Black middle schooler mentees in total.

“Doing everything online poses some challenges for building the culture that we want and to build up the identity and the relationships we want,” Gaines said. “We had to make these adjustments in order to make sure that our experience is safe.”

One of the primary differences between Camp AREN and the Bull-EYE Mentoring program is its particular focus on building the engineering identities of Black middle school teachers.

One of the primary differences between Camp AREN and the Bull-EYE Mentoring program is its particular focus on building the engineering identities of Black middle school teachers.

As in the prior programs, Camp AREN will still help student mentees build life skills through social activities via one-on-one video calls, and students will still develop technical skills through building and programming robots. Students will also reflect on their projects at the end of the program and present their robots live. Camp AREN begins this summer.

Next, Department of Electrical Engineering Professor Sylvia Thomas presented Game On: Grooming Black Youth for Leadership Excellence Using Video Gaming. Her research is centered on the disparity between the number of Black Americans who play videogames compared to the number of Black Americans who develop videogames, which has the twofold effect of creating preconceived notions of racial bias in one of the largest entertainment media while also making it less likely for Black tech professional to break into the videogame development industry.

“We have to meet the critical need of increasing participation in STEM to groom and nurture African American game creators and developers,” Thomas said.

The project’s objective is “to prepare and empower Black youth for leadership opportunities in engineering, gaming, Artificial Intelligence, arts integration, and business marketing/branding through the power of sports video games.”

Sylvia Thomas' Challenges Slide at IBL 2021

Game On: Grooming Black Youth for Leadership Excellence Using Video Gaming has four main challenges to overcome over the course of the project, listed above.

Project partners include the Special Olympics, Black Girls Code, the University of Florida Department of Computer & Information Science and Engineering, Bible-Based Fellowship Church and Philanthropy Partners LLC, with support from the Florida High Tech Corridor Council. The research is also an interdisciplinary endeavor within USF, featuring faculty members from the College of Engineering, the College of Business and from USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Florida Center for PAInT.

On day two of the conference, Department of Computer Science and Engineering doctoral candidate Lindsay Fields presented Using Argumentation Games to Inoculate Against Anti-Black Racism, led by Department of Computer Science and Engineering Professor John Licato in collaboration with faculty from the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies.

The project focuses on analyzing the effectiveness of CADEs (Controlled Argumentation Dialogue Environments) in inoculating users against anti-Black racism by building resistance to misinformation. While any method of discussing an argument – such as a casual discussion between friends, a formal debate or social media interaction — can be considered an argumentation dialogue, a CADE is highly controlled, restrictive of what can be said and supervised by a human moderator or AI program.

Lindsay Fields IBL 2021 Objectives Slide

One of the main objectives of the project is to determine if CADEs could have the potential to be a more effective training tool than traditional implicit bias training models for reducing the impacts of anti-Black racism.

The research team created its own CADE named WG-A (Warrant Game for Analogies) for the project — a chat room where one user takes the role of an advocate and another takes the role of a critic for a given target hypothetical. It’s up to the advocate to show that the given facts do support a given argument and the critic to show that they don’t.

“By using a target hypothetical based in anti-racism, WG-A may act as an inoculate tool,” Fields said. “The purpose is not to present learners with a perfect argument to change their minds but rather to allow them to find the flaws in the arguments themselves, and through the back and forth process of improving the argument, shed light on their own explicit or implicit biases.”

Lindsay Fields WG-A Screenshot Slide

A screenshot of the project team’s WG-A chat room environment shows how a conversation between an advocate and critic of a target hypothetical in a CADE is set up.

The team is working with high schoolers from Oak Ridge High School who will participate in supervised conversations both in the controlled WG-A chat room and in an unrestricted one as a control group. They’ll also be tested for existing prejudices and attitudes toward diversity training before the study.

Fields said the team chose to focus on adolescents due to the possibility that addressing cognitive bias earlier in one’s development may lead to more lasting effects and less need for re-inoculation against anti-Black racism.

While the project team’s current hypothesis is that CADEs will allow users to confront their own anti-Black biases and reduce their susceptibility to anti-Black rhetoric, Fields said another potential finding is that anti-Black bias is pre-rational and can’t be changed through argumentation. These findings could determine whether CADEs or different methods would be more effective at reducing bias against diversity training and improving diversity training for public servants who interact with Black communities across the country.