Mohammadi-Aragh receives NSF CAREER award to transform computing education

July 28, 2021

An assistant professor in Mississippi State’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has earned the prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

MSU professor Jean Mohammadi-Aragh

Electrical and computer engineering assistant professor Jean Mohammadi-Aragh recently earned the NSF CAREER Award.

Jean Mohammadi-Aragh is receiving nearly $1 million to develop better ways of teaching programming and other computing skills to undergraduate students across the country. The project, titled “CAREER: Creating a Model of Programming Skill Development to Improve Undergraduate Computing Education,” aims to reduce barriers to entering the computing workforce.

“Learning to program can be very difficult,” said Mohammadi-Aragh. “People are comfortable communicating with other people. We have been practicing creating sentences and expressing ideas for years. But communicating with a computer requires a different skillset. It’s both a different way of thinking and a new vocabulary. And if you can master that, if you can learn to program, you open the door to some excellent career opportunities.”

Estimates show that there are more than 500,000 unfilled computing jobs in the United States. Additionally, occupations that require computing, including engineering, comprise more than 50 percent of all projected new jobs in STEM fields. But a lack of programming knowledge has served as an impediment to filling those positions. Mohammadi-Aragh’s research has the potential to lower that barrier by transforming the way computing skills are taught.

The research goal for the project is to create a model of undergraduate programming skill development that is based on direct learning measures and the best practices of industry experts. The educational goal is to create a community for future computing educators so that they can more easily apply the research findings in their own classrooms.

The project will broadly examine how people learn to program and specifically investigate how writing instruction can support students in programming classes. If successful, the project has the potential to increase the number of students who complete computing degrees and, as a result, transition into the computing workforce.

“Computing is everywhere these days, which means that the project supports computer engineers and computer scientists, but it also supports students in other majors that take programming courses, including other engineering majors, information technology, and more,” said Mohammadi-Aragh.

A two-time MSU alumna, Mohammadi-Aragh earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from Mississippi State in 2002. She completed a master’s degree in the same field in 2004 before earning her Ph.D. in engineering education from Virginia Tech in 2013.

“I am full of gratitude for everyone who has helped me get to this point in my career,” said Mohammadi-Aragh. “As an MSU Bulldog, through and through, this achievement is a reflection of Mississippi State’s excellence. I have benefitted from countless enriching experiences with so many outstanding people, all across campus.”

The CAREER Award marks Mohammadi-Aragh’s sixth NSF grant, and her third in the last three years. In 2019, she and aerospace engineering professor Rani Sullivan earned $200,000 from the NSF to study the role of culture in encouraging women to pursue engineering fields. In 2020, Mohammadi-Aragh was one of a four-member team that received $1.6 million from the NSF to integrate computational thinking into secondary science curriculum.

Mohammadi-Aragh joins a list of recent MSU engineering CAREER Award winners that includes Ali Gurbuz, Wenmeng “Meg” Tian and Neeraj Rai.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a National Science Foundation (NSF)-wide activity that supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.

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By Philip Allison