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Engineering Student Identities And The Navigation Of The Undergraduate Curriculum

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2005 Annual Conference


Portland, Oregon

Publication Date

June 12, 2005

Start Date

June 12, 2005

End Date

June 15, 2005



Conference Session

Knowing Students: Diversity & Retention

Page Count


Page Numbers

10.558.1 - 10.558.8



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Paper Authors

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Reed Stevens

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Lari Garrison

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Engineering student identities in the navigation of the undergraduate curriculum

Reed Stevens, Kevin O’Connor, Lari Garrison

University of Washington, Seattle, WA, USA

Recent educational theory emphasizes the importance of considering identity processes in studying learning and development. In engineering education, identity has been cited as central in student development, for example, as a key factor in retention of students in the discipline. This paper examines how identity relates to students’ decisions about whether to remain in or switch out of engineering majors. We develop case studies of two students, both women and both members of underrepresented minority groups. One successfully gained admittance into her desired major, and one is considering leaving engineering. We argue that while each woman takes a different position on what engineering education should offer, both display a common, and we argue troubling, view of this educational experience. Our analysis seeks to explicate our ethnographic methods and to explore the broader possible significance for engineering education of the views that these women hold.


In this paper, we introduce a study in which we are following college students across their years as undergraduate would-be engineers. This research project, led by the first author, is being conducted at four universities; in this paper we report on data from just one of these universities. This study is based on an ongoing set of field observations of these students and extensive informal and semi-structured ethnographic interviews. Our goal is simple but executing it is complex. We want to understand the multiple dimensions of development involved in how young people who enter college with generally ill-formed understandings and practices of a discipline, in this case engineering, “become engineers.”

Twenty years of research influenced predominantly by cognitive science have typically answered developmental questions in terms of a single dimension—the acquisition of disciplinary knowledge. While we share the view that disciplinary knowledge is a critical dimension along which undergraduates develop1, representing only the concepts and problem solving practices of would-be engineers provides merely a partial understanding of how disciplined people develop. A person can be capable of solving every problem and passing every test, but if she or he does not see her or himself as “one of us” rather than “one of them”, that person is unlikely to become an engineer in any genuine sense of disciplinary participation.

Proceedings of the 2005 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition Copyright © 2005, American Society for Engineering Education

Stevens, R., & O'Connor, K., & Garrison, L. (2005, June), Engineering Student Identities And The Navigation Of The Undergraduate Curriculum Paper presented at 2005 Annual Conference, Portland, Oregon. 10.18260/1-2--14754

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