Dr. Denise Simmons

Dr. Denise R. Simmons joined the Myers-Lawson School of Construction and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering as an Assistant Professor in 2013. She is also an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Engineering Education and an affiliate research faculty member in the School of Education’s Educational Research & Evaluation Program. She is the 2016 recipient of Virginia Tech’s College of Engineering Dean’s Award for Outstanding New Assistant Professor, the Black Graduate Student Organization’s Lisa Tabor Award for Community Service and Virginia Tech’s National Distinction Award for Research.   Using deep insights from a fourteen-year industry career and her strengths as a systems thinker, Denise is now developing and disseminating empirically-grounded models and strategies for improved human competence and performance as it relates to the civil engineering profession and the construction industry.

Denise passionately pursues research to develop an agile, ethical, diverse construction workforce enabled to lead, design, and build sustainable, intelligent infrastructure. Her research focus is at the intersection of three aspects of the U.S. construction workforce: competencies necessitated by critical industry-wide forces and associated effective competence development pathways; demographics and its influence on diversity and labor availability; and strategies in teaching, recruitment, and retention. Her mission is to transform the construction workforce and sustain change. To this end, she undertakes research that enables her to influence postsecondary education and workplace learning pathways; instructional, diversity, recruitment, and retention strategies; and federal, state, local and institutional policies and practice and that result in professional competency in civil and construction engineering.

Denise is a PI or co-PI on four basic research grants and one applied research grant funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Her research projects include investigating civil engineering students’ development of leadership and other professional competencies and, as a NSF CAREER award recipient, engineering students’ involvement in college activities with an additional focus on underrepresented groups in engineering as well as civil engineering students. Early results from her current research support the idea that activities outside of the classroom can significantly contribute to students’ technical, professional, and social development with implications for retention and recruitment efforts to help create and sustain a diverse engineering workforce. Other NSF-funded work includes research exploring social and cognitive engagement in the civil and construction engineering classroom. Denise uses a range of theories, methods, and methodologies, and collaborates with interdisciplinary teams, to address the complex human problems facing the engineering profession and the construction industry.  Ultimately she seeks to move from an interdisciplinary to a transdisciplinary approach to research.

With internal seed funding and in collaboration with others, Denise is piloting projects that build on her current findings, test hypotheses and that will shape the direction of her future workforce development focused research projects. One such pilot project looks at how to measure quality in the civil engineering education experience and includes exploring the training that civil engineering faculty receive to teach and lead. The project is motivated by the need to comprehensively examine students’ outcomes before and after significant and transformative institutional changes aimed at improving students’ educational outcomes. Another project examines the well being of civil and construction undergraduate and graduate students with the goal of doing the same for construction professionals.  This project is motivated by the linkage between the mal-effects of stress and eating related disorders in construction workers and their performance on the job. With this project, she is collaborating with researchers from Australia.

Denise oversees the Simmons Research Lab (www.denisersimmons.com), which is home to a dynamic, interdisciplinary mix of undergraduates, graduate students, and a post-doctoral researcher from various colleges and departments at Virginia Tech who work together to explore engineering and construction human centered issues. Denise teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in civil engineering and construction covering topics like construction management, scheduling and estimating, construction workforce policy and communicating research to the public. Denise serves as an advisor on various graduate committees as students explore intersections that include policy, people, and the civil engineering profession or the construction industry.

Denise enjoys service aligned with her research interests and where she can see the impact of her efforts. She serves on the Future Faculty Advisory Board and co-chairs the Myers-Lawson School of Construction’s Human Centered Issues in Construction Community of Practice Committee; as a mentor to several Virginia Tech students; in re-occurring panelist or guest speaker roles for several Virginia Tech and Clemson University programs and classes; as an invited speaker at other institutions on topics related to her research; as an external evaluator on funded grants; and on proposal review panels for the National Science Foundation. She is the lead co-editor for a special collection on diversity and inclusion appearing in the Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice (JPIEEP), an American Society of Civil Engineers journal. In summer of 2017, she began serving as an associate editor of JPIEEP.  She is on hiatus from service activities related to women in construction and leadership development.

Denise holds a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in civil engineering and a graduate certificate in engineering education—all from Clemson University. Until 2012, she was the director of the Savannah River Environmental Sciences Field Station. As a practicing engineer, Denise has engineering and project management experience working with public utility companies, a project management consulting company, and a software company.  She is a registered professional engineer, project management professional, and LEED accredited professional.  “Loving Life” is Denise’s mantra; Oh, from the movie Home, is her favorite character; and her twitter handles are @DeniseRSimmons and @JoyfulProfessor.  As a proud member of the Virginia Tech community, she strives everyday to accomplish the charge of its motto Ut Prosim in the spirit of community, diversity, and excellence.

My Sessions

What Should Your Students Join? Pathways for African American Engineering Students’ Development of 21st Century Competencies


While curricular activities have long been the focus of engineering education research and practice, engineering educators have recently begun to recognize the value of what engineering students do outside of the classroom. The underrepresentation of women and minorities in engineering limits the ability of an engineering workforce to meet the needs of the 21st century […]

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