This collaborative research project will address the growing mental health crisis that affects over 40% of graduate students by exploring how graduate program directors (GPDs) can make trauma-informed care a programmatic default. GPDs can shape departmental procedures, enact institutional policies, and disrupt power dynamics between faculty and students. In other words, GPDs are central to improving and sustaining graduate students’ mental health and wellbeing. As such, this project will construct a curriculum with GPDs to aid in implementing trauma-informed practices to a large audience of GPDs. The project outcomes will support the improvement and development of proactive interventions to support positive mental health and wellbeing in graduate engineering programs. Improving the systems that support graduate student mental health in engineering programs will enhance recruitment and retention at all levels of engineering education, which in turn addresses the national need of training engineers to address grand challenges. The project results will also raise awareness of graduate mental health in engineering programs by preparing faculty in leadership positions to change the climate in graduate programs directly. These changes will serve as evidence-based models that increase the adoption of practices to support mental health and promote student wellbeing.
This project will examine the mental health crisis by focusing on the role of GPDs in integrating frameworks of care that consider the full range of traumas graduate students have experienced or could experience. The results of this investigation will characterize the roles of engineering GPDs and inform the development of methods to train a community of GPDs to implement evidence-based practices that foster care. This project will use a two-phase research design to address three research questions (RQ): RQ1: What are the characteristic roles of engineering graduate program directors in fostering cultures of care in their programs? RQ2: How do the systemic structures within higher education impact engineering graduate program directors’ implementation of trauma-informed frameworks of care? RQ3: What professional development program features can support engineering graduate program directors’ perceived ability to integrate trauma-informed frameworks of care in their approach to supporting graduate students? Phase 1 will leverage sequential mixed methods through a national survey followed by semi-structured interviews to characterize the roles of engineering GPDs and how programs leverage care practices. Phase 2 will build on these characterizations to collaboratively develop an evidence-based professional development framework for creating trauma-informed systems of care within engineering graduate programs. We will integrate a group coaching professional development approach with collaborative inquiry to explore the lived experiences of the GPDs participating and enable their attempts to foster care in their programs. The research design will expand existing theories for implementing trauma-informed frameworks of care to promote positive mental health and wellbeing within engineering graduate education. The results will inform the practices that faculty and instructors can use to realize the broad impact of trauma and recognize students experiencing, coping, and reacting to trauma. Four broader impacts will emerge from this project: (1) A characterization of GPD roles in engineering that researchers can use to accelerate other educational innovations in graduate engineering education, (2) A prototype developed and disseminated in collaboration with GPDs and an advisory board containing licensed professional counselors that can empower and enable GPDs to respond to students experiencing trauma and to minimize the occurrence of new trauma, (3) Structural changes to support students that have or will experience trauma, so they can return to deep learning and increase their likelihood to persist, and (4) Faculty who can better support systemically minoritized students through the implementation of care practices that respond to students’ identity-driven experiences.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.