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Gender and Racial Disparities in Students’ Self-confidence on Team-based Engineering Design Projects

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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

Design in Engineering Education Division: Design Mental Frameworks

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Design in Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Jenni Buckley University of Delaware

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Dr. Buckley is an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Delaware. She received her Bachelor’s of Engineering (2001) in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Delaware, and her MS (2004) and PhD (2006) in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked on computational and experimental methods in spinal biomechanics. Since 2006, her research efforts have focused on the development and mechanical evaluation of medical and rehabilitation devices, particularly orthopaedic, neurosurgical, and pediatric devices. She teaches courses in design, biomechanics, and mechanics at University of Delaware and is heavily involved in K12 engineering education efforts at the local, state, and national levels.

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Amy Trauth University of Delaware Orcid 16x16

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Amy Trauth Ph.D., is the Senior Associate Director of Science Education at the University of Delaware's Professional Development Center for Educators. In her role, Amy works collaboratively with K-12 science and engineering teachers to develop and implement standards-based curricula and assessments. She also provides mentoring and coaching and co-teaching support to K-12 teachers across the entire trajectory of the profession. Her research focuses on teacher education, classroom assessment, and P-16 environmental and engineering education.

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Sara Bernice Grajeda University of Delaware

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Dr. Grajeda's research interests lie in applied measurement work and policy analyses in education and public health areas. Her measurement work has involved developing and analyzing observational rubrics and surveys in both K12 and higher education settings in various content areas.

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Dustyn Roberts P.E. Temple University

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Dustyn Roberts received her B.S. in Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University (2003), her M.S. in Biomechanics & Movement Science (2004) from the University of Delaware, and her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering (2014) from New York University. She is passionate about translational research and engineering education.

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Students’ self-perceptions, their mental models of success in engineering, and how they formulate their identities are critical to their persistence and success in engineering. Students from groups who are traditionally underrepresented in engineering, specifically, women, underrepresented minorities (URM, def. non-White and non-Asian), and first-generation college students, are frequently the recipients of subtle messages of non-belonging, thus creating an inhospitable environment which inhibits the formation of professional identity [1]. Disparities may be particularly acute in team-based learning environments, such as engineering design projects, which are widely used in engineering courses [2]. While the intention of team-based design projects is to provide all students with a range of technical and non-technical mastery experiences [2,3], students enter into these experiences with differences – whether real or perceived – in relevant technical skills that undermine individuals’ learning objectives on team-based work. Prior research indicates male engineering students are more confident than females in their math and science abilities, as well as their abilities to solve open-ended problems [4-7]. Lower confidence in women often translates into lower likelihood that they will take an active role in technical tasks and instead relegate themselves to administrative or people-oriented tasks on design projects [8,9].

These gendered differences in students’ mindset and behavior on design-based projects have been well established [4,7-9], however, this work has yet to be extended to URM and first-generation populations. Furthermore, prior studies assessing student self-confidence, such as those incorporating the popular APPLES instrument [4, 8, 10], did not encompass the entirety of learning outcomes relevant to the engineering design process, e.g., prototyping. This study builds on the existing literature by determining whether student mindset towards all relevant aspects of team-based engineering design differs between majority and underrepresented students, considering gender, race, and first-generation status.

We developed and validated a composite survey that merged items from the APPLES instrument [4, 8, 10], which focuses on self-confidence in interpersonal skills, problem solving, and math and science theory, with an established but unvalidated instrument [11] that measures self-efficacy in “tinkering” – that is, prototyping and modeling – and the application of technical engineering skills to solving real-world problems. This instrument was administered as part of class activities during the kick off week of an introductory engineering course for all first-semester freshmen at a single university. Students completed the survey prior to engaging in any design activity with their assigned peer groups. Demographic information, including race, gender, and first generation and international student status, was collected as part of the survey, with these questions positioned at the end of the instrument to minimize stereotype threat [12,13].

Confirmatory factor analysis and internal consistency tests were performed with the instrument and yielded moderate fit (RMSEA=.058, SRMR= .071, CFI=.857, TLI=.841 and Cronbach’s alpha estimates were greater than .70 for each subscale (.77-.84). Independent samples t-tests were used to discern differences for females, underrepresented minority students (URM, def. non-White and non-Asian students), international students, and first-generation college students. A two-way ANOVA was conducted to detect differences for underrepresented females as a special group of interest. A Bonferroni adjustment was used to correct for multiple statistical tests conducted on the same data, which reduced the alpha threshold to .002.

Survey response was robust (N=632, 85.4% of total population) and reflected class demographics. Females demonstrated lower self-efficacy scores in engineering application (female = 3.5, male = 3.7, α=.001) and tinkering (female = 3.2, male = 3.6, α<.0001). URMs showed slightly lower self-confidence in math and science skills, although this result was not statistically significant by a conservative threshold (URM=3.6, non-URM=3.8, α=.008). URM females showed marginally lower self-efficacy than URM males in tinkering tasks, when controlling for both demographic factors (female-URM=3.3, male URM=3.6, αinteraction=.007). First generation college students were less confident in their math and science skills (first gen = 3.5, non-first gen = 3.9, α=.0009), and their confidence in professional and interpersonal skills were lower on average than their peers although not statistically significant (first gen = 3.9, non-first gen = 4.1, α=.01).

Taken together, these results suggest that there are pronounced disparities by gender and more moderate disparities by race and first-generation status present a priori students’ engagement in team-based engineering design projects. Consistent with prior research [4-9], women students were less confident in their tinkering and engineering application skills; and we found that this gap in tinkering was exacerbated by race for women of color in engineering. First generation and URM students were marginally less confident in math and science abilities, but there were minimal to no disparities in other design-related learning outcomes. These results suggest targeted areas for intervention, particularly “tinkering” self-efficacy for women, that may be addressed through coaching and exposure opportunities. The development and evaluation of such interventions to “level the playing field” will be the focus of future work by our group and will build on the baseline findings from this study.

Buckley, J., & Trauth, A., & Grajeda, S. B., & Roberts, D. (2019, June), Gender and Racial Disparities in Students’ Self-confidence on Team-based Engineering Design Projects Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32869

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