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Engineering perceived deficits into assets

November 5, 2019

ASU researcher helps Fulton Engineering Schools student veterans get past service-connected disabilities

Michael Sheppard is a former Navy special operations combat medic and current PhD student in engineering education systems and design in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering.

At 6 feet, 3 inches and a muscular 230 pounds, the Arizona State University student veteran is the picture of health. However, you might never know that Sheppard has a service-connected disability.

And such is the case with many other veterans coming home from deployments who survive through “invisible disabilities” — hidden ailments or impairments not detectable at face value.

“They are psychological, emotional and traumatic disabilities that veterans may carry with them that are not recognizable to mere observation and tend to be unseen,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard’s research backs him.

His study, “Exploring the Unique Skills and Challenges Veterans with Disabilities Bring to College: A Qualitative Study in Engineering,” was published by the American Society for Engineering Education and co-authored with Associate Professor Nadia Kellam and Assistant Professor Samantha Brunhaver, both faculty within the Polytechnic School engineering program at ASU.

Sheppard’s study focused exclusively on undergraduate student veterans currently enrolled in the Fulton Schools and pursuing engineering degrees. His goal is to help student veterans better understand the strengths, skills and strategies they learned in the military and continue to use them. Sheppard believes that a focus on those positive attributes is far more valuable to the students and academic community than the exploitation of sensational challenges that may be unique to student veterans.

“Most work surrounding transitions, veterans and survivors of traumatic situations is deficit-based, which focuses on their problems,” said Sheppard, who served in the military from 2003 to 2009. “My work aims to connect with other student veterans and identify their strengths and assets that were gained through their time in the service.”

Among the findings, student veterans with service-connected disabilities:

  • Initially face challenges both inside and outside the classroom due to dramatic changes in their social support systems and structural guidelines offered by the military.
  • Have an elevated work ethic.
  • Employ a heightened level of leadership, teaming and communication.
  • Acquired experiential learning skills from their military service.
  • Bring valuable skill sets, thought processes and problem-solving techniques to the engineering community.

In April, Sheppard presented these findings at the Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity Conference in Crystal City, Virginia, in front of an appreciative audience of researchers, academic practitioners and veterans.

Man petting a dog

Michael Sheppard on deployment in Kuwait in 2006. Sheppard said the dog limped into the camp with a severe leg wound and he treated him. "He decided to stay with us a few days," said the former Navy medic. "Eventually someone in the platoon decided to name him Slick. He made a full recovery."

Sheppard's study will be helpful in the quest to aid student veterans' transitions to academia, said retired Navy Capt. Steven Borden, director of the Pat Tillman Veterans Center.  

“There is a huge cultural transition for anyone leaving the military and it affects finding your new goals, developing a sense of belonging and understanding how things work in general," Borden said. "When you compound this transition with a disability, it becomes even more daunting. Nevertheless, when we connect with a student veteran and help them figure this transition out, they consistently perform amazing things. They are a valued part of our university community and should be in every institution.”

Sheppard said he wants to develop a deeper understanding of the experiences of these student veterans as they transition into higher education. ASU’s status as a Victory Media Military Friendly School made it an ideal location to conduct research, said Sheppard.

“At ASU we have many opportunities and avenues of support, but some veterans may still miss the support structures that they utilized during their military service,” he said. “It’s important to support our military veterans and recognize they may face unique challenges. However, more importantly, there needs to be a conversation about the unique skills that veterans bring to their institutions and places of work.”

Currently, an estimated 800,000 student veterans attend institutions of higher education in the United States, according to the Journal of Veterans Studies. More than 9,000 military-affiliated students are currently enrolled online and on campus at ASU, including 1,800 veterans in undergraduate engineering programs.

Moving from military to college can be tough for veterans, Sheppard said, especially when dealing with service-connected disabilities like traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, debilitating pain or vision or hearing loss.

Beyond dealing with invisible disabilities, Sheppard said other factors come into play. He said the military is full of structure, while the college lifestyle is full of choices and freedom that student veterans may not be accustomed to. In this new setting, student veterans create new routines as they reintegrate into a civilian lifestyle and the university setting. Age, status, family obligations, loss of camaraderie, a sense of social disconnection and discomfort in large crowds may further impose additional challenges on some veterans as they enter college.

Sheppard said even though the transition to school life can be fraught with challenges, student veterans bring valuable life experiences to the table.

“People in the military have experiences that only 1% of the population in the United States are exposed to,” said Sheppard, who was deployed to the Middle East. “Some of them are negative, some of them are positive, but all of those experiences and perspectives can be used as strategies, assets and strengths as they move forward in their lives.”

For some, moving forward meant sitting down and talking candidly to Sheppard for his study. Each selected participant had levels of service-connected disabilities exceeding 30% and openly discussed their transitions from active duty to civilian life. They also reviewed their experiential knowledge gained from training and military service, and talked about how they could use those skills in the classroom and their day-to-day lives.

Sheppard’s past military service helped the subjects open up about their lives, said Brunhaver.

“His background has given him firsthand understanding and an ability to uniquely empathize with the kinds of issues that his participants are experiencing as they navigate their engineering programs,” Brunhaver said. “The rapport he was able to build through shared and similar experiences has helped these relationships to flourish outside the research as well, into something that seems to have become mutually beneficial for both Michael and the participants.”

Sheppard said that through the study, some student veterans discovered strengths and strategies they did not previously recognize. There were also important moments when participants shared that they have the capacity to bring new skill sets, thought processes and problem-solving techniques to the engineering community.

“We are taught many skills in the military, but at the heart of it is problem-solving. That aligns very well with the engineering problem-solving method,” Sheppard said. “Problem-solving is a large part of military service. They have already completed similar tasks. Now they just have to identify the new language and verbiage as it relates to solving engineering problems versus how they did it before … the tools and assets they used in the past can still help them as they move forward.”

Brunhaver said the study was a good reminder that while ASU does a solid job supporting student veterans when they arrive, she’d like to see more programming for veterans in the middle to later stages of their degree programs, particularly as they think about their long-term goals and plans.

“We should be thinking how to develop not just one or two resources, but a plethora of resources so that student veterans feel supported in their education across all four campuses and throughout their academic careers,” Brunhaver said.

To that end, Sheppard has vowed to do the same.

“Student veterans have a lot to offer in their postmilitary lives,” Sheppard said. “Helping them transition back into the civilian world is the focus of my current work.”

Top photo: Engineering doctoral student Michael Sheppard helps student veterans get comfortable in an academic setting by utilizing assets they've used in past military service. After serving six years in the Navy, he focused his education on engineering and is now researching the psychological, emotional and traumatic disabilities that veterans carry and how to turn those disabilities into assets. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU Now


Redesigning the mindset for girls in STEM

November 5, 2019

A story of changing lives starts as all good stories do — with good food and good conversation.

Over a taco truck lunch with the 2018 Mandela Washington fellows visiting from Africa, Arizona State University Lecturer Christina Carrasquilla met her ideal outreach partner, Janet Silantoi. Silantoi is a cybersecurity expert from Kenya, who was at ASU connecting with other professionals as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. Christina Carrasquilla and students from the AIC Moi Girls Secondary School in Samburu County, Kenya Christina Carrasquilla (center of photo), a graphic information technology lecturer with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, brought her design thinking curriculum from Arizona to Africa to inspire high school girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and math. She worked with Mandela Washington fellow Janet Silantoi from Kenya to develop an app boot camp for girls at the AIC Moi Girls Secondary School in Samburu County, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Christina Carrasquilla Download Full Image

“When you meet that person you want to collaborate with, you want that great conversation to keep going,” said Carrasquilla, who teaches graphic information technology at The Polytechnic School, one of the six schools in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU.

The two tech enthusiasts bonded over their passion of helping to spark girls' interest in science, technology, engineering and math. And just like that, a conversation over tacos ignited an impactful outreach initiative that would span more than 9,000 miles.

Fostering intercontinental fellowship

The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is the flagship program of the U.S. government’s Young African Leaders Initiative, or YALI.  Since 2014, nearly 4,400 young leaders from every country in sub-Saharan Africa have participated in the fellowship. The fellows, between the ages of 25 and 35, are accomplished innovators and leaders in their communities and countries.

Each Mandela Washington fellow takes part in a six-week leadership institute at a U.S. college or university in one of three tracks: business, civic engagement or public management. The institutes support the development of fellows’ leadership skills through academic study, workshops, site visits, community service activities, cultural activities, mentoring and networking with U.S. leaders and collaboration with Americans.

From 2014 to 2017, the ASU Watts College for Public Service and Community Solutions hosted 25 fellows each summer for a civic leadership institute, and from 2016 to the present, Watts College has hosted 25 fellows each summer for a leadership in public management institute. In total, Watts College has hosted 200 fellows in Mandela Washington Fellowship Leadership Institutes. That taco truck where Silantoi and Carrasquilla met was one of the structured social activities during the 2018 public management institute at ASU.

To further strategic partnerships and professional connections developed during the U.S. leadership institutes, the Mandela Washington Fellowship also includes a reciprocal exchange program, where Americans have the opportunity to travel to Africa to continue collaborating on projects with the African fellows they met in the U.S.

Working together across a 10-hour time difference, Carrasquilla and Silantoi applied to the exchange program so Carrasquilla could travel to Africa. As part of the program, she lent her expertise in digital design and STEM outreach to high school girls at AIC Moi Girls Secondary School in Samburu County, Kenya.

Tech design and community engagement are skills in high demand for the fellowship, said Tara Bartlett, a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College who has been working with the Mandela Washington Fellowship at ASU since 2014.

“Each year, many fellows are interested in tech design and how to engage communities, especially rural communities, through technology,” Bartlett said. “Additionally, many fellows are looking to combine those skills with social issues, like women’s disenfranchisement and empowerment. So we look for facilitators who can present on several topics concentrically. (Carrasquilla) has an extensive resume of experience and outreach with a proven track record of mentorship.”

Bartlett said Carrasquilla’s connections with the greater community outside of ASU are also appealing to the fellows in networking, as well as her involvement with many outreach programs, such as the App Camp for Girls.

Encouraging engagement in education

As a first-generation college student who grew up in a time where technology classes were seen as “for the boys,” Carrasquilla is no stranger to the importance of having female mentors and role models in STEM. She wants girls in high school and younger to see careers in STEM as attainable and something they can achieve if they’re interested.

“We see similar issues with women in technology (in the U.S.), but the stakes are a lot higher in Kenya where it’s not expected for girls to get an education,” Carrasquilla said. “It’s not championed, but it should be an option if they feel like it’s right for them.”

Primary school only recently became free in Kenya, and secondary school still requires tuition. Families there often encourage girls to get married or take on household work rather than pay for them to attend secondary school.

But the AIC Moi Girls Secondary School is a special case for high schools in Kenya. The girls-only, private boarding school receives government funding to focus on STEM education.

Silantoi leads after-school computer clubs at AIC Moi Girls Secondary School and at other schools in the area where she has been meeting and talking with the girls about computer networking and cybersecurity. She brought in Carrasquilla to show them a different aspect of technology.

Apps with impact

Silantoi uses a similar boot camp formula that Carrasquilla applies in her Arizona-based outreach activities to generate interest in computer technology fields.

Carrasquilla brought the ASU design thinking course techniques she teaches in The Polytechnic School and translated them for a high school app-building boot camp.

“Apps are a really accessible way to understand what technology does and can do,” Carrasquilla said. “We do paper prototyping to gain concepts of digital workflow, and we look at the logic behind the apps we were making.”

Part of this prototyping involves thinking about what happens when the user interacts with particular features.

Though we often think of apps as being games, entertainment or sources of information, they can also help solve problems the app developers see in their communities. The girls in Kenya didn’t shy away from bringing up big issues they could help address with their apps: corruption, female genital mutilation, early marriages, public health and girls’ education.

Silantoi worked with the high school students to successfully develop a female genital mutilation alert app that alerts authorities of imminent incidences of the illegal practice. The fully functioning app has inspired the girls to see what they can accomplish with technology.

“It’s empowering for them to know they can make a difference,” Carrasquilla said.

Many of the students focused on different forms of corruption, which is something that affects the girls’ daily lives — for example, bank corruption can mean a girl can’t return to secondary school because her family lost the tuition money.

Others created apps on different topics. One group designed an app to teach children how to avoid getting bitten by infection-spreading insects called jiggers. Additional groups created apps to help girls overcome obstacles to staying in school and to combat drug abuse.

Carrasquilla said she and the girls saw how “working together to solve problems can make the world better at a small scale.”

“As graphic designers, we don’t often think we make an impact on the world,” Carrasquilla said. “But we design the experience of technology and we do have the ability to make a global impact.”

Showing women can have careers, families and an entrepreneurial spirit

Through the Mandela Washington Fellowship Reciprocal Exchange Program, Carrasquilla introduced the girls to life, career and STEM experiences of her fellow faculty members at ASU and the Fulton Schools.

When presented with the opportunity to help with Carrasquilla’s activities in Kenya, Andrea Richa, a professor of computer science and engineering who specializes in network algorithm research was “very excited to be able to contribute to such a high-impact high school outreach program.”

Richa already has an outreach activity for high schoolers called the Superpowers of Swarms, in which she leads activities to show how computer scientists take inspiration from nature — such as ants, bees and fish — to help robot swarms perform tasks.

Carrasquilla said the girls were “blown away” at how accessible Richa made these advanced technical concepts seem by how she related them to concepts the girls were familiar with.

Carrasquilla also reached out to Arizona women of color to show the girls an example of what their futures could look like.

Amy Robinson, a graphic designer with the Arizona Cardinals football team by day and a “part-time solopreneur” by night, was one of the women whose stories were shared with the girls.

Carrasquilla told of Robinson’s journey to landing a full-time gig in the seemingly male-dominated sports industry and how she balances her career and passions with her life as a wife and mother.

“As a woman of color, they didn’t have to see me in a stereotypical role,” Robinson said. “I own my own company, I work within a well-known organization that embraces diversity. They can be so much more than what society tells them they have to or can be. That’s beyond inspiring.”

Robinson said hearing that the students didn’t think it was possible to work and be a mom was particularly emotional, and she was glad she could share her story to inspire and be inspired herself.

“When (Robinson) talked about her husband and kids, all the girls gasped and started whispering to each other,” Carrasquilla said. “It was impactful for them.”

Robinson considers it her duty to give back to her community, and in this case, to potentially aspiring graphic designers in Africa.

“I think it was awesome that Christina was able to go and share not only knowledge about design and design thinking, but also that she was able to inspire the girls with stories of various women in different areas of their lives making big strides in their careers,” Robinson said. “Hearing that these girls are excited to problem-solve and find out what’s out there and how they fit in, or even stand out to make a difference, is a great feeling. The future is female.”

Making a difference, one classroom at a time

Carrasquilla plans to again apply with Silantoi for the Mandela Washington Fellowship Reciprocal Exchange Program, as well as with other fellows from the program.

She hopes to work with Mandela Washington Fellow Jennifer Batamuliza from Rwanda next summer to teach a boot camp in Batamuliza’s newly founded nonprofit organization that supports girls in tech.

But her partnership with Silantoi isn’t over yet. Before she even left Kenya, Carrasquilla and Silantoi had planned curriculum for three different boot camps to build on what they had already accomplished this summer.

Despite being a continent apart, their shared goals and passions continue to drive good conversations about how to improve and encourage girls’ access to STEM education all over the world.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. government and administered by IREX. Arizona State University is a sub-grantee of IREX and has implemented a U.S.-based leadership institute as a part of the fellowship since 2014. For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, please visit For information on how you can engage with the Mandela Washington Fellowship at Arizona State University, please contact

Monique Clement

Communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering