Cal Poly Awarded $2M Grant from National Science Foundation to Transform Computer Engineering Department 

Photo of sign advertising the College of Engineering to provide context for a story about one of its departments, the Computer Engineering Department
A revolutionary project to reimagine Cal Poly’s Computer Engineering Department has secured close to $2 million from the National Science Foundation. The project aligns with the College of Engineering's strategic plan that emphasizes justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. Photo by Joe Johnston, university photographer

A revolutionary project to reimagine Cal Poly’s Computer Engineering Department has secured close to $2 million from the National Science Foundation as educators seek to transform engineering education on campus and across the country. 

The highly prestigious award through NSF’s Revolutionizing Engineering Departments (IUSE/PFE: RED) program, which supports radical changes to the training of undergraduate engineering students, will fund the five-year Breaking the Binary project. 

Through workshops, dialogue and critical mentoring, CPE students and faculty will examine their perceptions and beliefs to uncover implicit bias within the department, then reimagine a department that is designed for all its members, from curriculum to physical spaces. 

“We want to make the department a better place for students, faculty and staff of different races, genders, sexual orientations and abilities, among other social identities,” said Computer Engineering Department Chair Lynne Slivovsky. 

She believes that addressing equity and justice within the department will lead to increased diversity and inclusivity, bringing about shifts in the demographics of the computer engineering population. 

“College engineering departments are not doing the kind of work we are doing on this scale,” she said. “It’s revolutionary.” 

The project, which officially launched in June 2023, has broad goals including holding workshops and encouraging dialogue in which faculty members examine their perceptions and beliefs. 

“We can identify that different models are at play instead of assuming this is how it is for everyone,” said Slivovsky, giving the example of shifting from a deficit model that focuses on learners’ weaknesses to an asset-based one that focuses on the strengths students bring to the classroom. “In the end, we want to determine how we can design things differently.”  

The grant team also is exploring ways to deepen relationships between and among students, staff and faculty. 

“We can build authentic relationships that allow us to have a greater appreciation for each other and ask honest questions about perpetuating systemic structures,” she said. 

Those relationships will ultimately enable a more collaborative dynamic between faculty and students, fostering a tailored educational experience. 

“We want to be a place that values everyone for who they are and how they show up, where they can learn computer engineering but not at the expense of their own identity,” Slivovsky said. 

The grant team includes members from inside and outside the department who are committed to making a difference. 

Professor and co-principal investigator Jane Lehr called the grant a tremendous achievement that will “enable faculty, students and staff at Cal Poly to take transformative action to create a new approach to doing computer engineering that will serve as a model at Cal Poly, nationally and potentially beyond.” 

Lehr serves as the director of the university’s Office of Student Research and is a professor in ethnic studies and women’s, gender and queer studies and affiliated faculty in computer science and software engineering and science and technology studies. 

The interdisciplinary faculty team also includes Bridget Benson, associate dean and computer engineering professor, Andrew Danowitz and John Oliver, computer engineering professors, and Liz Thompson, director of the General Engineering program and industrial engineering professor. 

External and internal advisory boards will support and aid the team. Experts outside Cal Poly will also lend their skills, including Jon Stolk, professor of materials science and engineering education at Olin College of Engineering, and Susan Lord, chair and professor of integrated engineering at University of California, San Diego. 

Founding Director of The Noyce School of Applied Computing Chris Lupo expressed his enthusiasm for the grant’s broader impact. The school that launched this year combines three departments – Computer Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Software Engineering.  

“This is a groundbreaking opportunity that will not only transform computer engineering within our college but also revolutionize the educational landscape in this field,” Lupo said. “With this grant, we are poised to embark on a journey of innovation, collaboration and daring invention.” 

By Emily Slater