Helping people understand who they are

Engineering and Honors College faculty fellow wins National Science Foundation award for research

By Jim Miller | Photography by Jeff Montgomery

At age 4, Dr. James Huff, associate professor of engineering and Honors College faculty fellow, was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy. The motor disability played a significant role in his youth. He was reminded of his athletic limitations. He was bullied. He felt singled out and isolated from others.

“For the first 12 years of my life, that was a very visible part of who I was,” Huff said. “There were a lot of ways my mild cerebral palsy showed up, and I spent much of my childhood being on the outside. Those experiences helped me to develop a sense of observing the world around me and grappling with my own questions of identity.”

Huff said by the grace of God, a supportive family, and physical therapy, he overcame many of the physical symptoms of the condition and went on to become a starting player for his high school varsity basketball team in his hometown of Haskell, Texas.

Looking back, Huff said he values the benefits of growing up with mild cerebral palsy, which motivated him to relate to the world around him with humor, compassion and curiosity. The physical limitations he experienced because of the condition diminished with time, but his interest in identity and well-being have never been stronger. 

In fact, that interest has become the focus of a nationally recognized research agenda.

In April, The National Science Foundation awarded Huff a $575,000 grant for his research titled “CAREER: Advancing Academic Cultures of Well-being by Understanding Professional Experiences of Engineering Faculty.” This grant is the most prestigious individual award given to an early-career faculty member at Harding. It is the 59th CAREER grant awarded in the state of Arkansas and only the sixth at an institution other than the University of Arkansas since NSF’s inception in 1994. 

This is the first CAREER award given among Harding’s peer institutions, including church of Christ-affiliated universities.

The grant will help Huff advance his psychological research on shame, identity and well-being in engineering education settings through a nationwide qualitative investigation of engineering faculty. The grant also will facilitate in-depth training for engineering faculty to cope with their experiences of shame. 

“I am a qualitative researcher of identity, the central question of how people understand who they are,” Huff said. “In this project, I will help transform the very essence of how we define engineering as we discover what it means to be human within the engineering profession. Specifically, I will examine the ways that engineering faculty experience professional shame when they fail to achieve what they feel is expected of them.”

Huff said most prior research investigates engineering faculty as static fixtures of student outcomes. His goal is to develop a holistic understanding of how faculty regulate emotion in moments of shame that are often hidden. The findings, he said, will help equip faculty with strategies to live out of a mindset of care toward themselves and their students.

“When people think about research on professions, they often think about getting people into a profession and helping them to be better at that profession,” Huff said. “In my research, I take a step back and ask, ‘How does being in this profession help this person answer the deeper questions of who they are?’ That’s important because who we are is much bigger than what and how well we’re doing at work. Who we are involves our well-being. It involves our whole selves. It involves our souls.”

Prior to winning the CAREER award, Huff worked as the principal investigator with collaborators from Harding and University of Georgia on a different NSF grant studying the lived experience of professional shame in engineering students. Huff and his colleagues published their theory of professional shame in the Journal of Engineering Education. 

“Professional shame is the very deep, visceral emotion we often feel and seek to hide in professional contexts when we think we don’t meet expectations related to our professional identity,” Huff said. “Through extensive interviewing and a qualitative method called interpretative phenomenological analysis, we found this phenomenon is a very real and painful experience for students.”

Huff and his colleagues researched white male students, a social group that is well-known to comprise the majority of students in engineering disciplines. Their research found that when experiencing professional shame, these students often responded in ways that, regardless of their intention, likely perpetuated the professional shame experience for other students. However, when these students recovered from their shame experience in a healthy way, they developed a social bond with other students through vulnerability.

His past research on professional shame in engineering students inspired Huff to consider investigating engineering faculty — the source of professional expectations that give rise to instances of shame in students. How do faculty create environments that lead to professional shame? How do they personally encounter the emotional experience? The CAREER grant will allow Huff to explore these questions and more.

“By understanding this experience in engineering faculty, we can help give faculty tools to advance their own well-being in the engineering space,” he said. “Also, if we can help develop secure, whole faculty who are in tune with their emotion regulation, that gives us a great chance for facilitating a strong, inclusive environment for all students in their domain.”

Huff’s trajectory of conducting qualitative, psychological studies is highly regarded within the international engineering education research community. Dr. Julie Martin, associate professor of engineering education at The Ohio State University, was Huff’s mentor when writing the CAREER grant proposal. She said Huff’s research is critically important to the future of the engineering profession. 

“His groundbreaking work will provide the field with important new insights that will help faculty better understand their own professional experiences and better educate the engineers of the future,” Martin said. “Dr. Huff is a well-respected scholar in engineering education and is uniquely qualified to carry out this ambitious project. I am confident that it will lay the foundation for his long-term career contributions.”

Dr. Shane Brown, professor of civil engineering at Oregon State University and editor of two engineering education research journals, is collaborating with Huff on a different grant proposal that examines engagement in capstone design courses. He said Huff’s work is important because there is little research on well-being in engineering.

“Engineers spend significant effort on learning, retention and other more common topics but often ignore the fact that we are still human beings living in a complex and challenging environment,” Brown said. “[Dr. Huff] is deeply rooted in complex, in-depth qualitative methodologies and has an extremely positive reputation in our field for his exceptional work. He is very good at what he does and has an amazing understanding and awareness of the literature and methodologies. He also is kind, generous, compassionate, and a very good colleague and friend.”

Huff graduated from Harding in 2005 with a degree in computer engineering as an Honors College Graduate with Distinction. As an undergraduate student, Huff was well known for his role as Student Association president in 2004-05. He frequently promoted student-led events through creative chapel announcements, including song duets with President David Burks. His theme for the year focused on building bridges within the University’s student body, a resonant focus with his current research agenda on facilitating social connection in professional environments.

After graduating from Harding, Huff earned a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Purdue while working as a technical lead engineer at a human simulation software development company. He returned to Harding in 2008 as an instructor and noticed a troubling trend in engineering education. Engineering courses are historically designed to emphasize mathematics and scientific principles that can be applied to social problems, but they often overlook the complexity of the social problems themselves. This compartmentalized approach to education concerned him because it reinforced a narrative that being an engineer required students to disengage from who they were as whole people. 

Ultimately, his experiences as an instructor led him to pursue a Ph.D. in the field of engineering education at Purdue, where his research agenda in identity, well-being and professional shame was born. 

After earning his doctorate, Huff returned to Harding for a second time in 2014 and quickly established the Beyond Professional Identity (BPI) lab. The name of the lab, Huff said, is derived from the central focus of his career research, which is to advance well-being in individuals beyond the concerns of their professional identities. 

Through the BPI lab, Huff has mentored 14 Harding students from 13 academic disciplines as co-investigators on ongoing qualitative research projects. These projects have ranged from studying the experience of frustration in STEM courses to examining the experience of identity amid chronic homelessness to investigating social connection amid physical distancing regulations during COVID-19. 

“Part of my work as faculty involves going alongside students and having them think not as performers of knowledge, that they can perform well by getting the right grades on exams, but rather as investigators and inquirers of knowledge,” Huff said.

Dr. James Huff works with Laura Faye Weber, a medical humanities major who graduated in May.

Huff mentors the students to pursue their original research questions that are broadly related to investigating identity. Active BPI students include Grant Countess, accounting major; Mary Grace Golden, double major in public administration and communication studies; Kyle Shanachilubwa, computer science major; Mackenzie Beckmon Sharbine, psychology alumna; John Lim, interdisciplinary studies alumnus; and Laura Faye Weber, medical humanities alumna. 

“Dr. Huff and the BPI lab were like a family to me while I was at Harding,” said Taylor Brown, a 2019 alumnus and Rhodes Scholar Finalist. “Dr. Huff mentored me during my first foray into research, sparked a career in social science research, and lived out what it meant to glorify God through research. We remain close friends, mentoring burgeoning scholars and exploring people’s lived experiences.” 

Huff said the University is the perfect environment to advance this scholarship. 

“I have always been captivated by Harding’s mission to integrate faith, learning and living,” he said. “This research agenda of investigating people holistically is in line with the mission of the university. The biggest asset of Harding is that faculty care deeply about students. I see this every day in my role with Honors. I get to work with faculty across campus to help shape students into investigators. By the time they graduate, these students have not only performed well in their classes, they have a deep sense of knowing who they are and knowing the questions they want to ask of the world.”

Dr. Brad Miller, chair of the department of engineering and physics, said winning the CAREER award puts Huff on par with the top junior academicians from prestigious universities nationwide.

“We have terrific faculty in our department, and this recognition for Dr. Huff is one more piece of evidence for the outstanding overall quality of our faculty,” Miller said. “We are very proud of the research Dr. Huff is performing studying professional shame in the context of engineering education. We look forward to participating with him in the research and learning ways we can improve the learning environment and create a healthier sense of well-being among the engineering students and faculty in our program.”

Huff, who comes from four generations of ministers in churches of Christ, said he enrolled at Harding as a first-year student in 2001 wanting to orient his career with the mindset of a minister while not getting paid for full-time ministry. He believes his research and the NSF CAREER award that will fund his research for at least six more years are his ministry.

“This work is a way for me to live out my mission as a disciple of Christ,” he said. “I am grateful for the opportunity God has given me to investigate ways that we engage our whole persons, our souls, in the things that we do in our professions.”

Dr. Jim Miller is an associate professor of communication in the College of Arts and Humanities. He and Dr. Huff are the first two-year appointees as Honors College faculty fellows.

National Science Foundation fellowships go to three alumni

Three alumni have won the prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. Typically considered the most prestigious award for graduate students in scientific disciplines, the five-year fellowship includes three years of financial support including an annual stipend of $34,000.

The 2021 NSF GRF awardees are Herman Ronald “Ronnie” Clements, Kanembe Shanachilubwa and Amanda Coleman Walls.

Clements graduated in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and is pursuing a doctorate in engineering education research at Purdue University. While at Harding, he was a member of the Beyond Professional Identity research lab and was a McNair Scholar. His NSF GRF was awarded in the field of engineering education research.

Shanachilubwa earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering in 2019 and is pursuing a doctorate in mechanical engineering at Penn State University. He also was a member of the BPI research lab and a McNair Scholar while at Harding. Engineering education research is the field of his NSF GRF. 

Walls graduated in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering and is pursuing a doctorate in the same field at University of Arkansas. While at Harding, she was a member of Dr. Jeff Massey’s research lab and was connected to the Arkansas Space Grant Consortium. Her NSF GRF was awarded in the field of biomedical engineering.

Categories: Features.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *