James Madison University

first graduates logoAbout this series: This is the 21st installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.

Gipson Strives To Open Opportunities Into STEM Fields

There was no ambiguity in the warning from his parents. If he was going to take his toys apart, he better be able to put them back together, especially the expensive ones like the motorized tank.

Dr. Kyle Gipson had no problem meeting his end of the bargain. "They were happy that it was working, but I was upset because I didn't get the gears back in place," he said. The tank ended up running in reverse when it was supposed to go forward and would go forward when it should have backed up, but Gipson was clearly on the path to becoming an engineer—although it wasn't clear to him at the time.

PHOTO: Kyle GipsonHis first serious thoughts about entering the profession didn't begin until after high school when he accepted a scholarship to Wofford College. And even then, his road to becoming an assistant professor of engineering was not void of some twists and turns. Gipson started Wofford on a "three-two program." For his first three years, he would attend Wofford and study math and science and for his final two years, he could go to Georgia Tech or Columbia University to finish his engineering degree. But after three years, Gipson decided he wanted to finish his bachelor's degree at Wofford. Rather than getting an engineering degree, he majored in physics, the science he felt was closest to engineering.

Following his graduation from Wofford, Gipson took a job at Milliken & Co., a chemical and textile company. His various jobs at the company over 10 years led to opportunities to get a master's degree in textile technology and later a doctorate in polymer fiber science.

Gipson, who joined the JMU Department of Engineering in 2011, entered his doctoral program at Clemson University with the goal of returning to industry. The teaching career "wasn't really a decision. It happened," he said.

Gipson discovered an interest in both research and teaching while earning his doctorate.  Among his research interests are light-emitting polymer nanocomposites, engineering education, increasing diversity in science and engineering, and exploring the ways students become interested in pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

PHOTO: Kyle GipsonThe earlier students are exposed to engineering, the better, Gipson said, including elementary school. "You do not need to explain the theory behind phenomenon. It is more along the lines of meeting the child at their current knowledge level. If a child is learning about different colors, you can talk about rainbows. Rainbows fascinate my five-year-old son. His fascination allowed me to introduce him to how colors are laid out in the spectrum. He may not be able to say electromagnetic spectrum, but he has an idea that it's sunlight and certain wavelengths of light are being absorbed and the ones he sees are those that are not absorbed. That's the type of education that has to be promoted." Such an approach, he said, allows students to mature with the material as they become more intellectually sophisticated.

Gipson’s engineering education research indicated that family plays a significant role in education decisions and "the social capital makeup varies with individuals of different communities. We are trying to understand how to get students more involved in STEM disciplines — specifically females and students from underrepresented population,” he said.

At JMU, there is interest in starting a chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. The mission of NSBE is to increase the number of culturally responsible black engineers who excel academically, succeed professionally and positively impact the community.  “We are looking for inspired individuals who would like to establish a chapter of this organization on campus,” he said.

Gipson is also involved in Bridging the Valley, an innovative, three week, STEM-focused residential program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to address the challenges of increasing enrollment in STEM majors and retaining students through graduation. The goal, Gipson said, is to make sure students receive the best possible information so they can make informed decisions about their education.

Series At A Glance