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How Granular is the Problem? A Discipline-specific Focus Group Study of Factors Affecting Underrepresentation in Engineering Undergraduate Programs

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Conference

2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

Location

Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Understanding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion from Students' Perspectives

Tagged Topics

Diversity and ASEE Diversity Committee

Page Count

24

Permanent URL

https://peer.asee.org/30581

Download Count

42

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Paper Authors

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Amy Trauth University of Delaware Orcid 16x16 orcid.org/0000-0002-5146-592X

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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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Tia Navelene Barnes University of Delaware

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Dr. Tia Barnes is an assistant professor at the University of Delaware in the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences and the Center for Research in Education and Social Policy. She is a mixed-methods researcher with a focus on the use of culturally responsive practices in creating positive classroom and school climates across grade levels. She has published work in several journals authored a number of research articles in journals including Aggression and Violent Behavior, Journal of School Violence, Journal of Classroom Interactions, and Education and Treatment of Children. She has also published book chapters in The Wiley Handbook of Violence and Aggression: Assessment, Prevention, and Treatment of Individuals and Classroom Behavior, Contexts, and Interventions: Advances in Learning and Behavioral Disabilities.

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Jenni Buckley University of Delaware

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Dr. Buckley is an Assistant 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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Joshua A. Enszer University of Delaware

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Dr. Joshua Enszer is an assistant professor in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Delaware. He has taught core and elective courses across the curriculum, from introduction to engineering science and material and energy balances to process control, capstone design, and mathematical modeling of chemical and environmental systems. His research interests include technology and learning in various incarnations: electronic portfolios as a means for assessment and professional development, implementation of computational tools across the chemical engineering curriculum, and game-based learning.

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Sarah Ilkhanipour Rooney University of Delaware

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Sarah I. Rooney is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Undergraduate Program in the Biomedical Engineering department at the University of Delaware, where she seeks to bring evidence-based teaching practices to the undergraduate curriculum. She received her B.S.E. (2009) and M.S.E. (2010) in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) and her Ph.D. (2015) in Bioengineering from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Rachel Davidson University of Delaware Orcid 16x16 orcid.org/0000-0002-6061-5985

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Professor, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Associate Dean for Diversity, College of Engineering
Core Faculty Member, Disaster Research Center
University of Delaware Newark, DE

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Xiaoxue 'Vera' Zhang University of Delaware

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Xiaoxue 'Vera' Zhang is a doctoral student researcher at the University of Delaware. She is passionate about working with teachers and other education practitioners to improve formal and informal STEM learning experiences for students. She is also excited about using AI and other quantitative methods to improve student learning and instruction. Prior to UD, she worked at the Research Group of Lawrence Hall of Science, UC Berkeley to conduct science and engineering related education research and evaluations (e.g., field trips, teacher professional development). During her master’s degree, she worked at the Penn Center for Minority Serving Institutions on research projects to promote minority students’ success in STEM disciplines and interned at a Philadelphia non-profit organization to examine the effectiveness of after-school programs.

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Abstract

The underrepresentation of women and students of color in engineering undergraduate programs can be attributed to a multitude of factors, including, but not limited to, barriers in recruiting into engineering programs at the K-12 level, lack of peer support, inadequate academic advising or faculty support, stereotype threat in the classroom or in peer groups, and a chilly or unappealing climate within specific engineering disciplines. To systematically address issues of underrepresentation at our institution, we conducted an initial study of students’ experiences in undergraduate engineering programs. Moreover, considering baseline demographic differences across engineering programs (e.g., 43% women in biomedical engineering compared to 12% in electrical engineering), we conjectured students’ experience are not only localized to a particular institution, but to specific engineering disciplines within that institution.

The potential granularity of underrepresentation in engineering undergraduate programs places constraints on the methods that can be used to gather meaningful information about students’ experience. For example, within a given discipline at an institution, there may be too few underrepresented students to gather aggregate, de-identifiable data that would yield generalizable outcomes. No matter how well conceived a survey instrument, it is difficult to reliably measure the complexity and interrelatedness of potential factors that influence the recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups, especially when combined with small sample sizes. We met these methodological constraints by using multiple focus groups, clustering students by engineering discipline and demographics, and utilizing ethnographic research experts who solicited feedback from underrepresented groups on specific barriers and contributors to retention and recruitment. Our goal was to determine the driving factors of underrepresentation at our institution, considering the potential granularity of the problem by engineering discipline and student sub-population.

Twelve focus groups were assembled from the entire undergraduate engineering population (ca. 2,400 students in four-year programs), with separate focus groups for women, students of color, and majority (White and Asian male) students by discipline. Students were recruited for the study at random, and a total of 63 students participated. Focus groups were moderated by ethnographic researchers who, after reviewing the literature, developed a set of prompts for the discussion related to: (1) high school preparation; (2) interactions with peers; (3) interactions with faculty and staff; (4) program supports; and (5) family support. Focus group interviews were recorded, transcribed, and subjected to thematic analysis by the research team.

Our results indicate some common factors among academic units that may influence the issue of underrepresentation our institution; other more specific factors are related to particular engineering disciplines and to different demographic groups. Our findings indicate that nearly all students who struggled in their engineering coursework reported attending high schools rated low quality by standardized measures, and/or did not have access to rigorous pre-engineering programming in high school. This issue disproportionately affected students of color and first generation students. Moreover, females and students of color reported being the target of peer micro-aggressions related to race and gender; these issues were more acute among students of color. Micro-aggressions directed at students of color by faculty were also reported in specific discipline clusters; whereas underrepresented students in other clusters felt that their faculty valued them as students, as evidenced by the quality of teaching and advising. Black students emphasized the importance of minority-focused student organizations and funding opportunities to support these structures for their success, while women put less emphasis on these same supports. Hispanic students stressed the need for more financial support and generally placed less emphasis on minority-focused student organizations.

Overall, the results highlight the importance of disaggregating student experiences by engineering discipline and demographic group. Our findings are now being used to direct diversity efforts at our institution with more specificity. These findings and our methodology may be applied by other institutions as they work to better understand and address underrepresentation in their own undergraduate academic programs.

Trauth, A., & Barnes, T. N., & Buckley, J., & Enszer, J. A., & Rooney, S. I., & Davidson, R., & Zhang, X. V. (2018, June), How Granular is the Problem? A Discipline-specific Focus Group Study of Factors Affecting Underrepresentation in Engineering Undergraduate Programs Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. https://peer.asee.org/30581

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