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Identity-Trajectory as a Theoretical Framework in Engineering Education Research

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Methodological & Theoretical Contributions to Engineering Education 1

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.688.1 - 24.688.11



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Paper Authors

author page

Lauren D. Thomas University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Identity-trajectory as a Theoretical Framework in Engineering Education Research (ERM - Research)Identity theories are a growing framework of interest in engineering education research. Thesetheories have been used as a means to understand student belonging, and student development. Inengineering education research identity frameworks enable researchers to introduce strategies toimprove teaching and learning in the discipline. Identity-trajectory is a newer paradigm inidentity literature used to explore, through time, the professional identity development ofgraduate students and emerging academics through three strands: intellectual, institutional, andnetwork. The purpose of this paper is to introduce the theory, provide examples of its practicaluse in an engineering education study, and introduce future research questions for engineeringeducation that can be explored through this theoretical approach.The intellectual strand focuses on the contributions of an individual to their specific field. Theinstitutional strand explores on the institutional influence on an individual’s development basedon their institutional affiliation, role, and responsibilities therein. The network strand examinesthe professional relationships, organizations, and collaborations that contribute to professionalidentity. The three strands of identity-trajectory enables a rich and detailed analysis of thecomplex nature of identity. Identity-trajectory explores multiple influences on identitysimultaneously allowing for interdependencies andThe example study is an engineering education doctoral dissertation that used identity-trajectoryto explore the development experience of graduate students in optics and photonics. The findingsof the study demonstrated the importance of research experiences for the preparation of eventualgraduate students with themes related to network access and the role of the institution infacilitating intellectual experiences. For graduate students, identity-trajectory reiterated theemphasis of careful design and development of the research laboratory, and the challenges ofnetwork access faced by graduate students. The theory also exposed some of the uniquechallenges faced by International and women students in photonics graduate programs.In the study example the use of identity-trajectory resulted in several codes and sub codes withineach strand that together provide strong explanatory power for identity development throughdifferent stages of the academic training process. The three strands also allow for the interplayof concepts, thus compensating for some of the shortcomings of a single theoretical approach.The example study is also the first application of identity-trajectory in physical science andengineering disciplines and has shown notable differences to the experiences found in priorstudies in the social sciences and humanities, the focus populations in all prior studies.The examination of the preparation and development of optics graduate students through the lensof identity-trajectory has shown promising results for using the theory for other, interdisciplinarypathways. Future studies will explore the use of identity-trajectory in the preparation anddevelopment of engineering education researchers, and the interdisciplinary training of STEMeducators.

Thomas, L. D. (2014, June), Identity-Trajectory as a Theoretical Framework in Engineering Education Research Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--20580

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