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A Longitudinal Study of the Dimensions of Disciplinary Culture to Enhance Innovation and Retention among Engineering Students

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session I

Tagged Topics

Diversity and NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Homero Murzi Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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PhD. Candidate Engineering Education at Virginia Tech.

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Thomas Martin Virginia Tech

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Tom Martin is a Professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and
Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, with courtesy appointments in
Computer Science and the School of Architecture + Design. He is the
co-director of the Virginia Tech E-textiles Lab and a Senior Fellow at
the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology. He received his Ph.D. in
Electrical and Computer Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and
his B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Cincinnati.
His research and teaching interests include wearable computing, electronic
textiles, and interdisciplinary design teams for pervasive computing.
In 2006 he was selected for the National Science Foundation's Presidential
Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) for his research
in e-textile-based wearable computing.

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Lisa D. McNair Virginia Tech

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Lisa D. McNair is an Associate Professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech, where she also serves as co-Director of the VT Engineering Communication Center (VTECC) and CATALYST Fellow at the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT). Her research interests include interdisciplinary collaboration, design education, communication studies, identity theory and reflective practice. Projects supported by the National Science Foundation include exploring disciplines as cultures, interdisciplinary pedagogy for pervasive computing design; writing across the curriculum in Statics courses; as well as a CAREER award to explore the use of e-portfolios to promote professional identity and reflective practice.

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Marie C Paretti Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Marie C. Paretti is an Associate Professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech, where she co-directs the Virginia Tech Engineering Communications Center (VTECC). Her research focuses on communication in engineering design, interdisciplinary communication and collaboration, design education, and gender in engineering. She was awarded a CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to study expert teaching in capstone design courses, and is co-PI on numerous NSF grants exploring communication, design, and identity in engineering. Drawing on theories of situated learning and identity development, her work includes studies on the teaching and learning of communication, effective teaching practices in design education, the effects of differing design pedagogies on retention and motivation, the dynamics of cross-disciplinary collaboration in both academic and industry design environments, and gender and identity in engineering.

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The U.S. engineering educational system has been generally slow in developing pedagogies that successfully promote innovative behaviors. Although numerous sources recognize the growing scope and complexity of challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century, engineering is struggling to balance its goals between the high-risk pursuit of innovation and the traditional problem-solving approach of producing functional, reliable applications. In short, engineering needs more creativity and interdisciplinary fluency, but not at the expense of its discipline-specific problem-solving skills. At the same time, engineering programs continue to struggle with attracting and retaining members of underrepresented populations—whose diversity could greatly contribute to innovation. Interestingly, this lack of diversity is often attributed to cultural traits of the field—often characterized as masculine, individualistic and function-oriented. Notably, students in fields that emphasize functionality (e.g. engineering) rather than creativity (e.g. industrial design) express higher levels of uncertainty avoidance. Together, these cultural dimensions of engineering continue to limit innovative practices, such as interdisciplinary collaboration, design thinking, and diversity of perspectives. The purpose of this study is to investigate patterns of cultural traits in students across disciplines, with the goal of building an actionable theory of engineering culture that can support pedagogies of inclusive and collaborative innovation.

Specifically, we are using Hofstede’s theory of dimensions of national culture to understand engineering disciplinary culture. We are using an instrument to evaluate the original four dimensions of national culture (power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism, masculinity) to see if the dimensions map to academic disciplines to explain how students develop skills to operate within and across disciplinary boundaries. Furthermore, we are exploring the relationships between these dimensions of disciplinary culture and student recruitment and retention, particularly for underrepresented groups.

We are in the third year of a mixed methods study. During year 1, 1043 students from all the disciplines at one institution were surveyed. In year 2, 1199 undergraduate students across 6 institutions were surveyed, and 5 students in electrical and computer engineering were interviewed. During year 3, the survey will go out during the spring semester 2016, and 24 students will be interviewed. Quantitative results describe how undergraduate students in different disciplines understand their culture in terms of Hofstede’s dimensions. However, although we were able to confirm the validity of the instrument with the quantitative data collected, there have not been statistically significant differences between the majors studied, suggesting that the instrument used was to measure the dimensions of culture at the national level rather than at the academic level.

In order to continue exploring whether Hofstede’s national cultures map to disciplinary cultures in universities, we are collecting qualitative data (informed by the quantitative results) to obtain in-depth information of how students understand and perceive their disciplines in terms of Hofstede’s dimensions. Results from our research will provide valuable information to understand disciplinary cultures in engineering majors, and contribute to better understanding how to improve engineering culture to make engineers more innovative, to make engineering classrooms more welcoming and inclusive, and to make better decisions regarding curriculum development in engineering.

Murzi, H., & Martin, T., & McNair, L. D., & Paretti, M. C. (2016, June), A Longitudinal Study of the Dimensions of Disciplinary Culture to Enhance Innovation and Retention among Engineering Students Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26351

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