Walter Lee said a running joke started when he attended a program at Clemson University during one of his summers off from Goose Creek High School.
“You skipped basketball camp to go to a science camp at Clemson?” he remembers his friends asking incredulously.
He did, and the decision helped set him on a path to a fast-rising career.
After the summer program, Lee enrolled at Clemson and went on to get his Bachelor of Science in industrial engineering in 2010. Then he headed to Virginia Tech for his master’s degree in industrial system engineering and a Ph.D. in engineering education.
Lee now serves as assistant director for research at Virginia Tech’s Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity. He and his collaborators have been awarded $6.2 million in competitive federal grants to support his research and provide students with scholarships.
Lee was among those honored in 2018 with an Outstanding Young Alumni Award from the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.
At 29 years old and only three years out of graduate school, he is just getting started.
One of his big projects is working with the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) and Purdue University to research the SEEK program, a summer camp led by NSBE for students in grades 3-5.
The nationwide camp is in 16 cities heavily populated with African Americans. While the project is ongoing, early findings have revealed some of the challenges associated with scaling up summer engineering experiences, such as securing funding for the camps in areas that do not have a large industry presence.
“What I noticed was that because these camps are industry funded, in places like Houston an oil and gas company might be interested,” Lee said. “But if you want to put a camp in a much more rural place and there’s not much industry there, that can be a challenge.”
Lee is also researching what four-year institutions can do to prepare students planning to transfer from community college.
He has personal experience with some of the same types of diversity-promotion programs he is now studying. At Clemson, Lee was a member of PEER, an office that brings together students who are from groups underrepresented in engineering and science.
He found inspiration in Sue Lasser, who was PEER’s director when he was an undergraduate. Lee remembers her being the first to suggest he pursue a Ph.D.
“I initially wanted to have a job like hers,” he said. “Now my goal is to conduct research that helps people like her do their jobs– it’s the central guiding force of what I do.”
Lee credits Julie Martin, an associate professor of engineering and science education at Clemson, with introducing him to the field of engineering education. It has given him a chance to merge his engineering skills with his interests in sociology, which was his minor at Clemson.
Lee remembers having help from peers, too. As an undergraduate, he made lasting friendships in Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and through Retro Jordan, an intramural basketball team that won four championships during his time as a student.
Making those connections with other students was crucial, he said.
“No one gets through engineering alone,” Lee said.
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