Simmons Receives AJEE 2021 Best Paper Award

Denise R. Simmons, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Civil & Coastal Engineering, received the 2021 Best Paper Award from the Australasian Journal of Engineering Education (AJEE).

Denise R. Simmons, Ph.D., is a civil engineering associate professor in the Engineering School of Sustainable Infrastructure & Environment (ESSIE).

In collaboration with colleagues, Cassandra McCall, Ph.D., Ashley Shew, Ph.D., Marie C. Paretti, Ph.D., and Lisa D. McNair, Ph.D., the paper, “Exploring student disability and professional identity: navigating sociocultural expectations in U.S. undergraduate civil engineering programs,” investigates how participants navigate their own conceptualizations of disability in relation to the established assumptions in civil engineering and throughout the United States. Her research explores how different sociocultural influences may impact the students’ navigation through their undergraduate educational experience.

Dr. Simmons says this topic brings a broader perspective to research based on diversity, equity and inclusion. She noted that research has been centered around race and gender, which are important, but other factors may also impact a student’s experience.  

“I seek to influence current thinking on the experiences of civil engineering students with disabilities. In so doing, the practical outcomes I aim for are strategies that boost the students’ engineering identity, shift the culture of engineering to being more inclusive, facilitate/help, in this case, students with disabilities to complete an engineering degree, and promote their full participation in the engineering workforce,” Dr. Simmons said. “Frankly, these are the outcomes I seek for all the populations I study. I aim to be responsible in my approaches and to train others to do the same.”

Her research discovered that social and cultural settings are essential drivers of educational choices. Civil engineering students with disabilities were either neutrally satisfied, challenged, or aligned with cultural expectations and definitions of disability as they formed professional identities. She found that individuals with nonapparent disabilities may pass as non-disabled to align with sociocultural norms. As a result, many of those students choose to navigate school without requesting the necessary accommodations to succeed in the program.

Dr. Simmons has been internationally recognized for her research in workforce development by the American Society of Civil Engineers and the Australasian Association for Engineering Education.

“The overarching aim of my research is to realize a diverse and inclusive workforce in civil engineering, and the work that led to this paper was a growth experience for me,” Dr. Simmons added. “As I contributed disciplinary and methodological knowledge, I received a better understanding of students with disabilities. For that, I thank the participants of the study and my co-authors.”  

To read Dr. Simmons’ research paper, visit 

Reba Liddy
Marketing & Communications Specialist
Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering