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Catalyzing Engineering Student Identity Development through an Independent Design Project

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Student Division Technical Session 4

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Paper Authors


Kalen Kahn U.S. Military Academy

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Kalen Kahn is a Cadet at West Point in his 3rd year of Mechanical Engineering.

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Brian J. Novoselich U.S. Military Academy

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Brian Novoselich is an active duty Army Lieutenant Colonel currently serving as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He earned his Ph.D. in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech in 2016. He holds Master's and Bachelor's degrees in mechanical engineering from The University of Texas at Austin and West Point respectively. His research interests include capstone design teaching and assessment, undergraduate engineering student leadership development, and social network analysis. He is also a licensed professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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This paper examines the development of an undergraduate engineering student through an auto-ethnographic look at an independent design project advised by a senior faculty member (co-author) at the United States Military Academy. The lead author undertook this study during the summer between his second and third year of undergraduate mechanical engineering education. This study of student development arose midway through the course of the independent design project, during a meeting between the lead author and the advisor. The advisor suggested that the author’s rich expression of individual development should be recorded and reflected upon. Chief among this theme of individual development was the author’s frustration with the gap between his performance, his ability, and his ambitions. His academic performance had yielded a top 40% ranking among his peers, while his tested academic aptitude was within the top 3%. Due to the opportunities granted to high-performing students, the author sought to decrease the difference between his aptitude and average academic performance. Research in Engineering Education has demonstrated the value of developmental experiences conducted in concert with post-graduate advisors. This study sought to leverage this precedent and apply it to an undergraduate student. Auto-ethnographic memos were used as evidence of the student’s identity development. These memos were used to record a diverse collection of experiences occurring concurrently with the study to include; advisor meetings, a summer internship with a national research laboratory, challenges encountered, and individual reflections. Key takeaways from the author’s developmental experience were changes in motivation, learning behaviors, and engineering knowledge; subjects of interest to engineering educators. These modes of individual student growth were mapped to an established, professional identity development model. The application of this model yields the conclusion that the student was fundamentally changed as a result of this study. This fundamental change represented a critical juncture in the student’s development preceding entry into the bulk of his mechanical engineering coursework. The lead author anticipates that resulting personal growth from the independent study experience may close the gap between academic aptitude and current performance for the remainder of his undergraduate experience. This study provides engineering educators with a highly contextualized example of how an individual design project may provide opportunities for undergraduate engineering student identity development and the critical role project advisors may play in mentoring this development.

Kahn, K., & Novoselich, B. J. (2019, June), Catalyzing Engineering Student Identity Development through an Independent Design Project Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32498

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