Vakil Receives Spencer Grant to Study Engineering Students, Islamic Revolution

Vakil Receives Spencer Grant to Study Engineering Students, Islamic Revolution

Sepehr Vakil at a recent faculty retreatNorthwestern University’s Sepehr Vakil received a $346,000 Spencer Foundation large research grant to study how the cultural, religious, and political context of late 20th century Iran shaped a premiere engineering university in the years leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Vakil’s two-year project, “A modernizing engineering education within a traditional Islamic society: A study of knowledge, learning, and identity in the early life of Sharif University of Technology, 1966-1979,” builds on previous work examining the political identity of engineering students at another prominent STEM university in the nation’s capital.

“Ultimately, the story of Sharif, and its role in Iranian history and politics, will broaden our understanding of the social significance and civic possibilities of STEM education,” said Vakil, assistant professor of learning sciences and director of the Technology, Race, Ethics, and Equity in Education (TREE) Lab.

In 1966, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Shah of Iran established Sharif Technical University (then called Aryamehr) as part of a larger campaign to modernize the nation. The architects wanted to create a learning environment that would rival the rigor of Western institutions like MIT, while also respecting the cultural ways indigenous to Iranian and Islamic society.

Remarkably, thirteen years later, in 1979, engineering students at Sharif played a critical role in the Islamic Revolution that overthrew the Shah’s regime. By examining how Iranian engineering students were politicized, Vakil hopes to deepen international and historical perspectives in the STEM education and learning sciences communities.

“The bold decision to design a cutting-edge technical university anchored in Iranian/Islamic values offers a historically-grounded example of what educational scholars have called ‘culturally sustaining pedagogy,’” Vakil wrote in his proposal.

Vakil’s research approach includes collecting and analyzing archival records from Sharif and MIT in Boston. He’ll also interview key historical figures and members of the Sharif University community between 1967-1979, including Seyyed Hossein Nasr, former president of Sharif University, who played a foundational role in designing and shaping Sharif University and is currently living in the US.

Vakil’s family immigrated to Iran in 1986 when he was three years old, in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war. He received his PhD in the Education in Mathematics, Science, and Technology program at the University of California-Berkeley, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from UCLA.

Before coming to Northwestern in 2018, Vakil was assistant professor of STEM Education and the associate director of Equity and Inclusion in the Center for STEM Education at the University of Texas at Austin. 

His research is largely centered around one key question: What is ethically and socially responsible STEM education?

Another project, supported by a National Science Foundation CAREER grant, designs learning contexts that helps students make sense of the ethics and politics of technology.

Vakil directs also directs the Young People’s Race Power and Technology Project (YPRPT), an that brings together undergraduate students at Northwestern with local high school students––along with activists, artists, and technology experts–to investigate the impact of artificial intelligence and big data technologies on marginalized communities in the Chicago area.

As a learning scientist, he takes a broad view of STEM, looking at in-school, out-of-school, home and community-based, virtual, as well as hybrid and blended learning environments. “I’m interested in the past and present role of STEM learning in mediating dynamics of power, inequality, and injustice in society,” he said.





By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 4/22/21