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Implicit Bias? Disparity in Opportunities to Select Technical versus Non-Technical Courses in Undergraduate Engineering Programs

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Research on Diversification, Inclusion, and Empathy II

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Marissa H. Forbes University of Colorado - Boulder

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Marissa H. Forbes is a research associate at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead editor of the TeachEngineering digital library. She previously taught middle school science and engineering and wrote K-12 STEM curricula while an NSF GK-12 graduate engineering fellow at CU. With a master’s degree in civil engineering she went on to teach physics for the Denver School of Science and Technology, where she also created and taught a year-long, design-based engineering course for seniors. Forbes earned her PhD in civil engineering, with an engineering education research focus.

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Angela R Bielefeldt University of Colorado - Boulder

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Angela Bielefeldt is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering (CEAE). She serves as the ABET assessment coordinator for the department. Professor Bielefeldt is the faculty director of the Sustainable By Design Residential Academic Program, a living-learning community where interdisciplinary students learn about and practice sustainability. Bielefeldt is also a licensed P.E. Professor Bielefeldt's research interests in engineering education include service-learning, sustainable engineering, social responsibility, ethics, and diversity.

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Jacquelyn F. Sullivan University of Colorado - Boulder

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Jacquelyn Sullivan is founding co-director of the General Engineering Plus degree program in the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. She spearheaded design and launch of the Engineering GoldShirt Program to provide a unique access pathway to engineering for high potential, next tier students not admitted through the standard admissions process and the CU teach Engineering Program - creating a pathway to secondary math and science teacher licensure through engineering. Sullivan was conferred as an ASEE Fellow in 2011 and was awarded NAE’s 2008 Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education.

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Undergraduate engineering students are commonly afforded minimal opportunities to choose their courses as compared to their non-engineering peers on campus. In addition, many engineering programs restrict students’ limited curricular choices to courses that are heavily skewed to be technical in nature, further limiting students’ ability to realize a broad and balanced college education. This study extends the work of understanding course choice opportunity in engineering education by exploring the opportunities that students in U.S. News & World Report top-ranked and ABET-accredited engineering programs are afforded to choose their technical versus non-technical courses. Coursework for each of 103 programs across chemical, civil, electrical, and mechanical engineering disciplines was characterized as technical (engineering, math and natural science) or non-technical using the 2013-14 online university catalog. The programs commonly afforded students the opportunity to choose the bulk of their (limited) non-technical coursework—a median of 88%—compared to 27% of their required technical courses. Though some choice is necessary to satisfy students’ innate psychological need for autonomy, too much choice is detrimental, and providing choice in a balanced manner is essential. More work is needed to better understand the optimal integration of psychologically gratifying course choice opportunity into engineering degree programs, including the psychological implications of the comparative rigidity and prescription that students encounter in their engineering, math, and natural science course selections, and comparative sovereignty over their non-technical courses.

Forbes, M. H., & Bielefeldt, A. R., & Sullivan, J. F. (2016, June), Implicit Bias? Disparity in Opportunities to Select Technical versus Non-Technical Courses in Undergraduate Engineering Programs Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25598

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