Terri Norton, team get NSF grant to pair STEM education efforts to disaster research

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Terri Norton, associate professor of construction engineering.
Terri Norton, associate professor of construction engineering.

Terri Norton, associate professor of construction engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), is part of a team of faculty from three universities that has received a National Science Foundation (NSF) INCLUDES grant to increase STEM education efforts for underrepresented groups while also contributing to hazards and disaster research.

The Scholars from Under-Represented Groups in Engineering (SURGE) and the Social Sciences: Minority SURGE Capacity in Disasters launch pilot will provide the empirical research to identify ways to increase the underrepresentation of minorities in STEM disciplines interested in hazards mitigation and disaster research.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is the headquarters of the program and is one of 27 institutions from across the country to receive an INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) grant.

Norton, the only engineering faculty on the team, has research interests that include disaster debris management and natural hazard mitigation and management. Norton said the group will use the two-year, $300,000 grant to educate and train future leaders in engineering and disaster science, focused on the preparedness, response, recovery and mitigation of natural disasters.

“We are connecting it with my research in disaster mitigation and I will be connecting it with the work I’ve done in Japan and the work that I might do with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma,” Norton said. “We will also look at how debris management played a role not only in the emergency response/recovery phase but also in the reconstruction phase. My work will be leading that thrust area.”

Norton said it’s important to understand the impact engineering has in disaster mitigation and response.

“We know that our civil structures have an integral impact on how safe people are and our structures are in a disaster,” Norton said. “I’m looking at the built environment and how its connection with human factors – from preparedness to mitigation to response to recovery to reconstruction – can improve all these areas.”

The grant looks to establish a graduate scholars program led by the UNO team and Emergency Services assistant professors DeeDee Bennett and Hans Louis-Charles. Their research thrust will focus on emergency response management. There will be satellite programs at both UNL and the University of Colorado-Boulder.

The Natural Hazards Center (NHC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder will study social science issues related to natural disaster recovery. Lori Peek, professor of sociology and director of the NHC, and Nnenia Campbell, a research associate, are also co-PIs for the grant.

The SURGE pilot will serve as a nation-wide programmatic resource for any minority students who are currently pursuing STEM-related fields with and interest in emergency management. The goal is provide students with everything from academic and research support to workshops and partnerships with emergency response agencies across the state and across the nation.

"Increasing the involvement of qualified minorities will help solve the broader vulnerability concerns in these communities and help advance the body of knowledge through the diversity of thought and creative problem solving in scholarship and practice," Bennett said. "Utilizing workshops and a multifaceted mentorship program, SURGE creates a new model that addresses the diversity concerns in both STEM and disaster fields, and make American communities more resilient following natural disasters."

Norton said recruiting graduate students from underrepresented groups will be a key component to this grant, including increasing the numbers of ethnic minorities and of women.

Grant funding comes from the NSF INCLUDES program, which is designed to create paths to STEM for underrepresented populations, expanding the nation’s leadership and talent pools.

NSF INCLUDES is among NSF’s “10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments” research agendas that identify areas for future investment at the frontiers of science and engineering.

A key feature of NSF INCLUDES is its focus on uniting a wide variety of collaborators to generated pioneering solutions to persistent problems. Each of the pilot programs selected will create an infrastructure that enables collaboration, fueling future innovations in broadening STEM participation.

“Broadening participation in STEM is necessary for the United States to retain its position as the world’s preeminent source of scientific innovation,” said NSF Director France Córdova. “The National Science Foundation has a long history of working to address difficult challenges by creating the space for inventive solutions. NSF INCLUDES breaks new ground by providing a sustained commitment to collaborative change with the goal of bringing STEM opportunities to more people and communities across the country.”

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