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How Theater Can Promote Inclusive Engineering Campuses

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Diversity and Inclusion: Concepts, Mental Models, and Interventions

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


David DiBiasio Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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David DiBiasio is Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering and Department Head of ChE at WPI. He received his ChE degrees from Purdue University, worked for the DuPont Co, and has been at WPI since 1980. His current interests are in educational research: the process of student learning, international engineering education, and educational assessment. Collaboration with two colleagues resulted in being awarded the 2001 William Corcoran Award from Chemical Engineering Education. He served as 2004 chair of the ASEE ChE Division, has served as an ABET program evaluator and on the AIChE/ABET Education & Accreditation Committee. He has also served as Assessment Coordinator in WPI’s Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division and as Director of WPI’s Washington DC Project Center. He was secretary/treasurer of the new Education Division of AIChE. In 2009 he was awarded the rank of Fellow in the ASEE, and in 2013 was awarded the rank of Fellow in AIChE.

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Kristin Boudreau Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Kristin Boudreau is Paris Fletcher Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she also serves as Head of the Department of Humanities and Arts. Her training is in nineteenth-century literature, but for the past 8 years she has taught engineering ethics, first-year engineering courses, and humanities for engineers. She has also worked with students and colleagues to develop role-playing games teaching engineering within its complex humanistic context.

NOTE: this paper has co-authors.

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Paula Quinn Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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Through her role as Associate Director for the Center for Project-Based Learning at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Paula Quinn works to improve student learning in higher education by supporting faculty and staff at WPI and at other institutions to advance work on project-based learning. She believes project-based learning holds significant potential for increasing the diversity of students who succeed in college and who persist in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, and she views her work with the Center as contributing to education reform from the inside out. She holds an M.A. in Developmental Psychology from Clark University and a B.A. in Psychology from Case Western Reserve University. Her background includes working in the field of education evaluation, where she focused primarily on the areas of project-based learning; STEM; pre-literacy and literacy; student life; learning communities; and professional development. She has worked on projects whose funding sources have included the National Science Foundation, the Institute of Education Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Education.

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How the Performing Arts Can Promote Inclusive Engineering Campuses

How can the arts contribute to a culture of inclusivity within engineering? This paper explores preliminary findings from our study of a four-year, primarily engineering college whose longtime undergraduate curriculum requires all students to complete a substantial humanities project.

Many engineering students at this institution choose to do this humanities work in theatre, where they study classic and contemporary plays and participate in productions. They have the option of writing an original play as their capstone project, and if successful their play may be staged for a campus audience. For 35 years, an original short play festival on this campus has performed the work of students. From nearly the beginning, these original plays featured the difficult themes of sexual identity and orientation. In 2017, to celebrate this rich heritage, the theatre program presented a retrospective of LGBTQ+ themed plays written and performed by students since 1987.

We report here on our findings from a mixed-method study of this theatre program and its influence on the culture at this primarily engineering college. As Cech and Waidzunas point out, engineering culture is not generally a welcoming place for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people or for open discussions about non-normative sexuality. However, the data we have collected around the theatre program at this institution —specifically, the plays dealing with LGBTQ+ themes, surveys we conducted of audiences at the 35-year retrospective of LGBTQ+ themed plays, and interviews with people associated with the theatre program, including its faculty director and several openly queer current and former engineering students— make a compelling case that theatre can contribute to an engineering culture that is more inclusive of non-normative sexualities (not just for people involved with the theatre program but for the educational culture at large) than is typical in engineering schools. Our methods include gathering quantitative data from surveys and analyzing qualitative data from the words of students and alumni reflecting on their experiences as queer engineering students, how their experiences in the theatre program helped them embrace their nonnormative sexual identities, and how the theatre program contributed to an inclusive climate at this engineering institution. Because our study subjects are engineering majors, not liberal arts or theatre majors, the implications of our study can be extended to other engineering educators. We will conclude with recommendations drawn from this study that can be applied to other engineering institutions (whether or not they have theatre programs).

DiBiasio, D., & Boudreau, K., & Quinn, P. (2018, June), How Theater Can Promote Inclusive Engineering Campuses Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30583

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