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Meet Dr. Yvette E. Pearson of Rice University and The PEER Group in Sugar Land

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Yvette Pearson.

Dr. Pearson, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I’ve heard educators say that you know who the “STEM kids” are by the time they’re transitioning to high school. That wasn’t me. I graduated from high school planning to major in music and foreign languages. On paper, I didn’t have any of the markers people look for in engineering majors; I did not do well in high school mathematics nor did I participate in STEM-related activities. No one told me about them. It was my mother who convinced me that I had the aptitude to become an engineer. She persuaded me to give it a try and I’m so glad I listened! I’ve earned a B.S. in civil engineering, an M.S. in chemistry, a Ph.D. in engineering and applied science, and a graduate certificate in educational research methodology. I’m a registered Professional Engineer (in Louisiana) and am a program evaluator for the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET.

I knew by the time I was a sophomore in college that I wanted to teach engineering. I never dreamed my journey would take me to where I am today. I have been in higher education as an engineering faculty member and administrator for nearly 25 years. My career has included appointments at three very different institutions – Southern University Baton Rouge, a mid-size public university that is one of the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); the University of Texas at Arlington, a large public university that is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI); and Rice University, a small private institution. I also spent three years at the National Science Foundation as a program director. Currently, I’m Associate Dean for Accreditation, Assessment, and Strategic Initiatives in the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice University and I own a consulting firm, The Pearson Evaluation and Education Research Group (The PEER Group).

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I have faced a number of personal and professional challenges over the years. I was born with cerebral palsy, and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve experienced a number of limiting mobility changes with the use of my arms and my legs. Being in pain almost constantly, I start each day with struggles and thoughts that do not cross most people’s minds – getting dressed, making sure my mobility scooter’s batteries are charged so I can get through the day, finding adaptive ways to do basic things like cooking and chores – but I’m determined to step out each day and tackle it with a smile on my face. I count every day God gives me a blessing.

Contrary to what many might think, the hardest challenges to overcome are not my physical challenges, but my mental challenges. For years I’ve struggled with low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy. I realize now that I experienced stereotype threat back as far as 8th grade, which was a decade before researchers recognized the phenomenon and coined the term. I have struggled with impostor syndrome most of my career and find that even now, I have to draw upon coping mechanisms in some situations in order to overcome it.

Another hurdle I’ve overcome, but still see all too frequently in my profession, is how some people perceive those of us who are from identities that have been historically excluded from engineering and other STEM fields (racial/ethnic minorities, women, and people with disabilities). I’ve been greeted as a secretary rather than as an engineer on a job site and in professional society meetings. I’ve been told that I should take minutes in meetings “because women make better secretaries.” Someone even commented that I had the most secure job of all our colleagues because I was a Black woman with a disability, implying that I had my job because I checked demographic boxes and not because of my capabilities. I still encounter people who believe people of color (especially Blacks), women, and people with disabilities are less capable than White men and people without disabilities. Until recently, my approach to overcoming these hurdles has been to show rather than tell what I’m capable of. But I’m at a point – and have been for some time now – where I’m content with my track record speaking for itself. And while some people – even now – continue to think I need to “prove myself” in areas in which I’m already firmly established, I simply refuse to do so. I choose, instead, to put my efforts into eradicating the systemic inequities that have long existed in engineering programs, organizations, and other professional environments that perpetuate the marginalization and exclusion of people like me.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Rice University and The PEER Group – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
The PEER Group is a consulting firm that specializes in educational research and program evaluation, particularly for projects focused on inclusion of people from excluded identities (namely racial/ethnic minorities, persons with disabilities, women, and people from low-income backgrounds) in STEM education, research, and practice. We are known for the development of highly competitive education research proposals to funding agencies like the National Science Foundation. What sets us apart is our expertise in these types of funding opportunities and our unique approach to coaching clients through the proposal writing process. We started consulting part-time in mid-2017 and since that time, we have helped clients win ~$3.3 million in funding, and we’ve grown from a single client in 2017 to five currently active clients in four states (excluding those whose contracts have been completed during the past two years).

Rice is among the top 20 universities in the nation – #17 in National Universities, #8 in Best Undergraduate Teaching, and #13 in Best Value Schools. One of the things that attracted me to Rice was the commitment to undergraduate education, which parallels the institution’s exceptional record as a research institution. Rice Engineering is a pillar of that success. As an associate dean of engineering, I provide oversight for accreditation, assessment, and continuous improvement of programs across our nine departments. I also lead the development and implementation of strategic initiatives focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. This touches every facet of what we do as a School, from K-12 outreach to faculty recruiting and hiring.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
We have been striving for decades for engineering education and the workforce to be more reflective of society. Engineers solve societal problems, and we cannot do that effectively without representation and inclusion of perspectives of people from all demographic groups. With engineering societies and federal funding agencies placing increased emphasis on the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion to our profession, I expect to see positive changes in these areas. Will we get to where we need to be within the next decade? I doubt it; however, I believe we can make strides in the right direction.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
I’d have to say that, other than seeing my former students succeed in their careers, some of my proudest moments have been receiving ABET’s Claire L. Felbinger Award for Diversity and Inclusion, receiving the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE’s) Professional Practice Ethics and Leadership Award (of which I was the first woman and the first Black/African American recipient), and being part of the team that brought diversity, equity, and inclusion to the forefront of the civil engineering profession with the addition of Canon 8 to the ASCE’s Code of Ethics. But above all of that, I’m proudest of being able to have The PEER Group sponsor an annual scholarship for minority engineering students through the Achievement Through Leadership Foundation to honor my mother, Geraldine E. Jackson, and have her see the impacts of her motivating, encouraging, and supporting me on future generations of engineers.

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Image Credit:
Monica Blackshire, ABET, Vicky Pink

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