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Active Learning Group Work: Helpful or Harmful for Women in Engineering?

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Diversity and Inclusion: Concepts, Mental Models, and Interventions

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Megan Keogh University of Colorado, Boulder

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Megan Keogh is an undergraduate student studying environmental engineering and environmental policy at the University of Colorado Boulder. Megan has been involved in education outreach and mentorship for much of her college career. She completed a STEM education class in which she shadowed a local 5th grade teacher and taught three of her own STEM lessons. Megan has also been a new-student mentor through her department’s peer mentoring program. Now, Megan is interested in researching how team dynamics affect undergraduate women’s confidence levels in engineering.

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Malinda S. Zarske University of Colorado, Boulder

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Malinda Zarske is a faculty member with the Engineering Plus program at the University of Colorado Boulder. She teaches undergraduate product design and core courses through Engineering Plus as well as STEM education courses for pre-service teachers through the CU Teach Engineering program. Her primary research interests include the impacts of project-based service-learning on student identity - especially women and nontraditional demographic groups in engineering - as well as pathways and retention to and through K-12 and undergraduate engineering, teacher education, and curriculum development. She is passionate about hands-on engineering design for every student, at every age level.

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Janet Y. Tsai University of Colorado, Boulder Orcid 16x16

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Janet Y. Tsai is a researcher and instructor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on ways to encourage more students, especially women and those from nontraditional demographic groups, to pursue interests in the field of engineering. Janet assists in recruitment and retention efforts locally, nationally, and internationally, hoping to broaden the image of engineering, science, and technology to include new forms of communication and problem solving for emerging grand challenges. A second vein of Janet's research seeks to identify the social and cultural impacts of technological choices made by engineers in the process of designing and creating new devices and systems. Her work considers the intentional and unintentional consequences of durable structures, products, architectures, and standards in engineering education, to pinpoint areas for transformative change.

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Active learning remains at the forefront of new engineering pedagogies. This exciting approach uses hands-on and collaborative learning activities to give students real-world technical and nontechnical experiences. Many universities across the country have implemented active learning classes because there is ample evidence that they stimulate long-term material retention, critical thinking and communication skills [1,2,3]. However, these positive attributes mask a hidden problem. Past research has shown that active learning environments can cause additional stress on female students, an already marginalized group in STEM fields. Focus groups revealed that women often feel inferior to their male counterparts when working in groups, and that women are often assigned the stereotypically feminine roles of team secretary or report-writer when working on long-term projects [3,4]. These findings are concerning not only for the retention of women in engineering, but also for the success of active learning programs as a whole. The mission of active learning is to prepare students to work with a diverse group of people in a respectful, professional manner. This goal cannot be achieved until women feel respected and comfortable working in team settings.

This paper investigates the causes of doubt for women in active learning settings. The first task in this process is to gather information about student-to-student relationships that develop during group work. Our primary research question is: “How do peer interactions in an active learning environment affect a woman’s confidence as an engineer?” This research will require a mixed- methods approach. Anonymous peer evaluations will be utilized to find discrepancies between peer perceptions of female teammates and female self-perceptions as a teammate. Additionally, co-ed and female-only focus groups will be held to gather qualitative data on what typical female-to-female and male-to-female interactions entail. The goal of this study is to find what painpoints women experience in terms of team dynamics during active learning courses. If these problems are identified, educators can effectively work toward making their classrooms more comfortable for women. In doing so, active learning experiences will become more successful for women and men alike.


[1] Mehta, S. (1998, June), Cooperative Learning Strategies For Large Classes, Paper presented at 1998 Annual Conference, Seattle, Washington.

[2] Koehn, E. (2000, June), Collaborative Learning In Engineering Classrooms Paper presented at 2000 Annual Conference, St. Louis, Missouri.

[3] Dyrud, M. (1999, June), Getting A Grip On Groups Paper presented at 1999 Annual Conference, Charlotte, North Carolina. [4] Meadows, L. A., & Sekaquaptewa, D. (2013, June), The Influence of Gender Stereotypes on Role Adoption in Student Teams Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia.

Keogh, M., & Zarske, M. S., & Tsai, J. Y. (2018, June), Active Learning Group Work: Helpful or Harmful for Women in Engineering? Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--29748

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