Scholars' Experience in STEM and Non-STEM Research

Elijah Kumbal

Coming here from Ghana on a Fulbright Scholarship, Elijah Kumbal joined Siebel Center for Design as a summer intern in 2023. Halfway through his master’s program in the Math, Science, and Engineering Education program here at the University of Illinois’s College of Education, Elijah wanted to challenge himself during the summer months.

“I contacted my advisor…I was looking for chances to kind of do some form of internship or something that would get me engaged during the summer,” Elijah recalled.

Engineering students test their inventions on the Bardeen Quad
Fulbright Scholar and SCD Alumni Elijah Kumbal.

Elijah joined several other interns in Summer 2023 as part of the Assessment, Research and Learning team. Engaging in curriculum design, Elijah learned much about human-centered design (HCD) and the processes and practices that make HCD such a valuable approach in educational spaces. He spoke of being able to blend what he had been learning in his education coursework with the processes and practices of HCD. He, along with his fellow interns, put HCD practices into play to iteratively design learner workshops centered on 21st century mindsets are fostered by meaningfully engaging in HCD. What resonated most with Elijah was that iterative process.

“By designing those workshops and seeing how that communicated with the audiences and to kind of get feedback and how that would send you back to the drawing board to see how you get new ideas [for iteratively redesigning the workshop material]. So for those who are probably learning, it’s kind of an experience to put what they are learning of the theoretical into practice as they work in those processes,” Elijah said.

Elijah also spent the summer engaged in data analysis work as part of an ongoing education research project that explored the ways that a social justice in education course used HCD practices to hopefully foster social empathy in pre-service teachers. Elijah continued this work throughout the Fall 2023 semester as well and described the experience as valuable.

“I always wanted an experience that was beyond academic stuff and this was genuinely one of the programs that gave me hands-om practice, especially with the research work. I had a great coach in Carrie who was very supportive and Saad, who was on the backstage, but giving us all the motivation and encouragement that we needed to move forward. They were always an inspiration…they were serving as a role model for me to kind of try to imitate to see how best I can be a better version of myself with their support.”

While Elijah’s time with SCD was brief, only about six months, he left transformed. “There have been a lot of transformations since I came here. I really wish I had more time to work here … The main thing in going back into the teaching is seeing how best I could implement human-centered design ideas that I’ve learned here to see how that can be implemented into the education sector back home in Ghana to bring some kind of transformation. And of course, also, with all of the experiences working with the [research] project how to build that kind of empathy in pre-service teachers and seeing how that can also transfer that into my work.”

Justin Shell

Recent aerospace graduate Justin Shell (BSAE ’23) interned with SCD for two summers as a research assistant and camp counselor.

In 2022, SCD debuted a new STEM-based summer camp as part of the Grainger College of Engineering Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering (WYSE) program. The week-long camp, People Designing for People (PDP), offers an immersive human-centered design (HCD) experience for high school students. To better understand how our new collaborative HCD task may have impacted factors such as students’ awareness of HCD and its role in engineering, Justin helped collect pre- and post-test survey data. He also conducted ethnographic observations of students working in their teams.

Engineering students test their inventions on the Bardeen Quad
SCD Alumni Justin Shell.

“What really interested me was the research aspect,” Justin said of applying to the SCD internship. “It was a good learning experience to work with the people who study firsthand what human-centered design has to offer.”

Justin also had the opportunity to teach select camp sessions and join students during their daily lunch hour.

“I think my favorite part of camp was showing prospective college students what college is really like and helping them lean into their interests,” he said of the opportunity to mentor students during camp.

The following year, Justin returned to serve as head counselor of PDP, which included managing intern counselors, facilitating camp sessions and activities, and providing feedback to campers. “We’re helping to shape the next generation of engineers and we want them to bring empathy to the workplace,” he said. “To be able to teach [students] empathy was one of my best memories.”

Now continuing in the aerospace program as a master’s student, Justin is currently interning with Orbion Space Technology in Houghton, Michigan. While in Houghton, he will work on developing a thrust stand for testing electric satellite thrusters in a vacuum chamber. He will also research thermal drift, a phenomenon that impacts thrust stand accuracy over time. Justin will return to UIUC with the thrust stand prototype following the Spring 2024 semester and continue researching in Dr. Josh Rovey’s Electric Propulsion Lab.

As he goes on to other research and design projects, his experience with human-centered design at SCD continues to have an impact.

“At the end of the day, you can design any experience using HCD and you can do it empathically,” Justin said. “It’s a shift in mindset in working with other people, where you’re not just there to work next to someone but to work together to achieve a common goal.”