Asee peer logo

An Exploration of Female Engineering Students’ Functional Roles in the Context of First-year Engineering Courses

Download Paper |


2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division Technical Session 3

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Juebei Chen Shanghai Jiaotong University

visit author page

Juebei Chen is a graduate student at the Graduate School of Education in Shanghai Jiao Tong University. She obtained a B.Admin in business administration from Minzu University. Her current interest focuses on the cognitive development of engineering graduate and undergraduate students, the assessment of teaching and learning in graduate education.

visit author page


Jiabin Zhu Shanghai Jiao Tong University

visit author page

Jiabin Zhu is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Education at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Her primary research interests relate to the assessment of teaching and learning in engineering, cognitive development of graduate and undergraduate students, and global engineering. She received her Ph.D. from the School of Engineering Education, Purdue University in 2013.

visit author page

author page

Tianyi Zheng Shanghai Jiao Tong University

Download Paper |


Engineering profession has been regarded as a male-dominant field because of the low representation of females (19.2% in U.S. in 2013) [1]. In China, the number of undergraduate students reached 7,213,987 in 2013 [2], however in the field of Engineering, the percentage of females was less than 20% [3]. Therefore, in such a male-dominated context, it is critical to explore female students’ perceived learning experience [4]. This research seeks to explore female engineering students’ learning experience in the context of First-year Engineering Courses. Specifically, we will explore female student’s perceived functional roles in a group project setting. Benne and Sheats’ typology (1948) classified the types of roles in a group into three functional roles, that is task roles (related to group goals and individual members’ efforts), social roles (i.e. members’ relationship roles within a group), and individual roles (related to the satisfaction of individual needs) [5]. Using this typology as a framework, we explored the different functional roles adopted by female engineering students in the context of group projects. Methodologically, we adopted a phenemenographic approach in that we focused on exploring the variety of functional roles adopted by female engineering students [6]. Qualitative data from and qualitative interviews were collected. Classroom observation was conducted in three undergraduate Introduction to Engineering courses to observe different female students’ performance in their group and interaction with other members. Also, we interviewed fifteen female engineering students from the class to explore their functional roles. Based on classroom observation and interviews, we found that female students in different groups have taken on various functional roles. Some girls often proposed to the group new ideas as opinion givers; some girls tried to reconcile the disagreement among other members and relieve tension in conflict situations as a harmonizer; and some girls seemed to be isolates and were not able to integrate into the group. We also explored the factors that were associated with their roles. Group size, ratio of gender, and group dynamics were found to be related to female students’ performance of engagement and group interactions. Low female participants’ representation and male dominance in a group were possible reasons for female students’ marginalization. Students’ personalities, prior learning experiences, instructors’ formative feedback and other factors were found to be closely associated with female students’ performance in a group project context. This report examined female engineering students’ functional roles in a group project context to understand these students’ learning experience in a male-dominant engineering course. Our findings will provide direct implications for female students’ adoption of different learning strategies in engineering courses. Moreover, such findings can also render insights for engineering professors in their classroom management. Finally, our exploration of female students’ functional roles can be used to inform the design of engineering curriculum and the incorporation of effective and meaningful learning activities for female students.

Bibliography [1] National Science Foundation (2009). Women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. Retrieved from: [2] The Ministry of Education of China. (2013). Educational Statistics in 2013. Retrieved from: [3] Min, Y. (2013). Study of an adaptive transformation platform of the CDIO in engineering education. Hangzhou: Zhejiang University. [4] Baker, D., Krause, S., Roberts, C., & Robinson-Kurpius, S. (2007). An intervention to address gender issues in a course on design, engineering, and technology for science educators. Journal of Engineering Education, 96(3), 213-226. [5] Benne, K. D., & Sheats, P. (1948). Functional roles of group members. Journal of social issues, 4(2), 41-49. [6] Bowden, J., & Walsh, E. (Eds.). (2000). Phenomenography. Melbourne: RMIT Press

Chen, J., & Zhu, J., & Zheng, T. (2017, June), An Exploration of Female Engineering Students’ Functional Roles in the Context of First-year Engineering Courses Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--27562

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2017 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015