Main Navigation

How research experiences can support underrepresented students

Education researcher Brian Burt visits the U to talk about how research experiences can support underrepresented students.

The University of Utah College of Education is proud to announce Brian A. Burt as the 2023 J. George Jones and Velma Rife Jones Distinguished Lecturer. On Monday, March 13th, at 4:30 p.m., Burt will present “(Re)Engineering Graduate Advising: A Discussion about Care” at the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex.

Burt is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Director and Chief Research Scientist of the Wisconsin Equity and Inclusion Laboratory (Wei LAB), as well as a classically trained pianist.

As a researcher, his work explores the experiences of graduate students and how institutional policies and practices influence students’ education and workforce pathways. Burt has a particular interest in the field of engineering and how research and educational experiences can support, or fail to support, students of color from pursuing careers in engineering and science. In preparation for his visit, we sat down with Burt to ask about his research, community and what the future of engineering and science looks like.

A Black man with a Van dyke beard wears a gray jacket, white shirt and purple bow tie with a purple pocket square. Interior windows are in the background.

PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Brian Burt

Brian Burt.

Download Full-Res Image

When you first went to college, you were interested in a degree in music education and becoming a world-famous conductor. What changed and brought you to the world of education and educational research?

From the age of 6-18, I took piano lessons from the same teacher. She was a wonderfully skilled teacher and mentor. Upon going to college, the connections with my music instructors were never strong; I selected a new instructor each semester for 3 semesters—trying to find “the right” connection—until changing my major. In retrospect, I now know that I was searching for a teacher who could understand me and my gifts and help me to feel as if I belonged in the field of music. I also now understand that my instructors were graduate students, on their own journeys of self-discovery, learning how to teach, and learning how to motivate and mentor students.

Around the time I changed my major to secondary English education, I was invited to participate in the Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP), where I was paired with Dr. George Kuh and his doctoral advisee at the time (now Dr. Shaun Harper). Through their guidance and mentorship, I was introduced to higher education as a field of study and my early interest in exploring the academic plight of Black males.

You once said that experiences in research labs can have more influence on a student’s research abilities and post-graduate career trajectory than classroom experiences, and yet, both are types of communities. What factors make the lab community more impactful than the classroom community?

Indeed, both the classroom and research labs/groups/teams are impactful social locations where teaching and learning take place. However, in some fields of study (for example, engineering), more emphasis tends to be placed on students’ learning within the lab. In these fields of study, the lab is the predominant location where students are expected to test out—or put into practice—what they are learning from their coursework. Translating this to the field of education, more faculty are incorporating research teams in their professional practice. Yet, much more knowledge remains needed on how to intentionally develop the team, design the team’s practices, supervise the team and create a culture of community that promotes both cohesion and productivity. This is why I do work on the science of team science—to better unveil the complexities and opportunities of research teams and to provide useful strategies to assist faculty and principal investigators with their teams.

Our society is growing increasingly diverse and younger generations are making up a greater portion of the population. How might the field of engineering and research teams change in the future as the research and mentoring batons are passed to more diverse, and younger generations?

This is a wonderful enduring question that should be intentionally explored and re-explored within each decade. Candidly, I think that people across generations should start by being honest with themselves: Do I want change in my lifetime? Do I want change for future generations? Honest answers to those questions are necessary starting points. If people sincerely want change, then I believe we should interrogate why practices, policies and behaviors have enduring power. If we are truly committed to change, then we must be willing to (un)learn and dismantle many of the bad practices, policies and behaviors that continue to shape higher education. This answer is broad, and not specific to engineering nor research teams. Fields of study (for example, engineering) and research teams are mechanisms to push forward agendas. Again, is the agenda to change or stay the same? Younger generations, too, have the wonderful opportunity to create change—if they want change.

You are a researcher and piano player. How does the daily practice of music and being a musician inform your work as a researcher or vice versa?

Given my other hobbies (e.g., gardening, landscaping, playing with my two dogs), I don’t practice piano as much as I could. However, the strategies I learned from my years of playing stay with me. My musical training informs my understanding that mastery takes time, iteration, setbacks and perseverance. Whenever I start a new project and/or manuscript, I remind myself that it will be messy at the beginning, but by the end it will be a beautifully rich composition. In between starting and completion, I consistently remind myself of the other challenging songs (or manuscripts, projects, research tasks) that I was able to conquer. Engaging in these motivational self-talks help to silence the imposter syndrome.

If you were to cite the top 5 things a program can do to attract underrepresented students, what would they be?

In no order of importance, because they all need to be done simultaneously:

    • Ensure that the program (its faculty, staff, students) has done its work to create an environment that is both welcoming to new students and capable of helping students complete the program.
    • Intentionally hire underrepresented faculty of color. And once they are hired, move out their way! In other words, don’t be barriers to their success. Provide them with the resources that they need to innovate. Provide them with the resources they need to recruit students. Provide them with the resources to mentor and support the students they recruit. By resources I’m explicitly talking about more start-up money, more course releases, summer salary, travel funds. Providing these resources are necessary for any faculty member to be successful. They are essential for underrepresented faculty who will be expected to recruit, mentor and be the “faces of diversity” for the program.
    • Do not wait for underrepresented students to come to you. Instead, go where they are and recruit them (think of recruitment for athletes). Doing so will take strategy and intentionality, but it is possible and effective.
    • Help prospective underrepresented students see the community they could be joining. Do this in honest ways; do not deceive students with brochures and websites that show an abundance of happy people of color if those in the community are unhappy. Communicate honestly to students the plans to create a growing community of scholars. Honesty is key.
    • Plan to pay students a livable wage, taking into consideration the cost-of-living of the local environment.

Notice that these 5 strategies are not exclusively about attracting students, but also about making a commitment to graduating the students who enroll. To attract students, programs must be clear on their commitment to complete students.

The J. George Jones, Jr. and Velma Rife Jones Lecture takes place on Monday, March 13th, at 4:30 pm. Burt will give a free and open presentation entitled “(Re)Engineering Graduate Advising: A Discussion about Care” at the Beverly Taylor Sorenson Arts and Education Complex. A reception with light refreshments will follow. All University of Utah faculty, students and staff are welcome to attend. If you need special accommodations, please contact Rose Simper at or 801.587.1712. If you have questions about the event, please call 801.581.8221.