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Latinx Students’ Sense of Belonging in Engineering/Computer Science at an HSI

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2021 CoNECD


Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day

Publication Date

January 24, 2021

Start Date

January 24, 2021

End Date

January 28, 2021

Conference Session

CoNECD Session : Day 3 Slot 7 Technical Session 3

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Submissions

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Paper Authors


Alberto Esquinca San Diego State University

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Alberto Esquinca is an Associate Professor in the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education at San Diego State University.

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Erika Mein University of Texas at El Paso

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Dr. Erika Mein is Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Educator Preparation in the College of Education at the University of Texas at El Paso, and Associate Professor in the Department of Teacher Education. Her scholarship focuses on disciplinary literacies in postsecondary contexts, with a particular emphasis on engineering identities and literacies among English Learners and bilingual students. Her research has been published in journals such as Theory into Practice, Action in Teacher Education, and Journal of Hispanic Higher Education. She earned her Ph.D. in Reading/Writing/Literacy from the University of Pennsylvania and has been a faculty member at UTEP since 2008.

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Helena Mucino University of Texas at El Paso

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Helena Muciño is a Ph.D. student in the Teaching, Learning, and Culture program at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). She holds a master's degree in Musical Education Research from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). She is currently working as a Research Assistant for an NSF-funded project at UTEP dedicated to broadening the participation of Latinx students in higher education.

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The persistent under-representation of Latinxs, particularly Latinas, in Engineering and Computer Science (CS) is well-documented. This under-representation occurs both in the pipeline into and through undergraduate engineering/CS studies, as well as into the profession: only one-tenth of engineering/CS degrees were awarded to “Hispanics” in the ten-year period from 2004 to 2014 [1], while 2018 data showed that only 8% of the engineering workforce was comprised of “Hispanics” [2]. Significant studies have drawn attention to some of the challenges experienced by Latinx engineering/CS students [3] [4]. In the research literature, sense of belonging, or belongingness, refers to the positive interactions and attachments experienced by an individual [5] and fostered within institutional contexts [6] [7]. When a student has a sense of belonging, they feel connected and that they matter to others on campus; thus, sense of belonging relates to persistence. A large body of research literature on Latinx students’ sense of belonging have consistently found that they report a lower sense of belonging than white students [8] [9]. In particular, first-generation Latinx college students in predominantly white institutions [10] [11] report lower sense of belonging. In addition, recent studies have investigated the role HSIs can play to promote Latinx’ students sense of belonging [12], the crucial role mentors in promoting belonging [13] and family-based approaches to promote belonging [14].

Studies have shown a correlation between high levels of belongingness and academic success in STEM [15]. In engineering education, specifically, studies have uncovered students’ own views and experiences of belongingness [16] [17] and have shown the positive connection between underrepresented students’ strong sense of “classroom belonging,” their engineering identity, and their academic performance [18]. More recently, an emerging literature explores Latinx students’ sense of belonging, as connected to their engineering identities. Latinx science and engineering undergraduates are exposed to a hyper-competitive, individualist culture that rarely promotes a sense of belonging [19]. In addition to this, Latinx engineering undergraduates also reported the weight of outside responsibilities, travel to campus and quality of interactions with peers and instructors as factors in promoting a sense of belonging [20]. While first-generation, low income engineering Latinx undergraduates report lower sense of belonging, they show a remarkable sense of resilience by actively constructing a sense of belonging in their area of studies by actively cultivating relationships between their family funds of knowledge and their engineering practices, as reported in one study [21].

The present, NSF-funded study is situated within senior-level capstone courses in Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science at a research-intensive Hispanic Serving Institution on the US-Mexico border. In order to explore the connection between engineering identity and belonging, this study draws on one-year of intensive ethnographic data collection to examine: (1) how Latinx engineering/CS constructed their engineering/CS identities; and (2) how Latinx students experienced belonging in engineering/CS, both as a field of study and as a career option. The study focused on 18 participants (6 women, 12 men) from Year 1 data collection (2017-2018). Three key sources of data were utilized: participant-observation in capstone courses (more than 75 hours); in-depth interviews (52 total); and artifacts. For the purposes of this analysis, we relied on coding of in-depth interviews and fieldnotes using an open- and focused-coding approach [22]. Data analysis utilized a sociocultural lens on identity, understood as ways of “saying-doing-being-valuing-believing” through participation in socially-situated activities and practices [23]. Analysis included a particular focus on the “identity resources” and institutional resources experienced by Latinx engineering/CS students [24].

Preliminary analysis points to both collectively oriented and individually oriented ways sense of belonging was constructed. At the institutional level, four types of institutional factors that contributed to belongingness (or exclusion) were identified: 1) relational (particularly teachers/mentors); 2) pedagogical (which referred to the learning configurations of key courses); 3) informational (particularly with respect to the types/modes of information conveyed to students by the institution); and 4) sociopolitical (border-crossing and visa experiences of Latinx engineering/CS students). Thus, participants identified ways that their sense of belonging to and mattering to people on campus was constructed. Their collective participation in activities on campus with mentors could be hindered by factors that interrupted their participation on campus (including visa issues). Similarly, participants’ interactions with peers was another collectively oriented way that could promote a sense of belonging. Group interactional dynamics within students’ senior capstone teams could contribute to building, but also reducing the sense of belonging experienced by students.

On an individually oriented scale, students’ relationships with peers in both engineering learning activities as well as engineering organizations were factors that served to construct a feeling of belonging. The HSI context and the campus proximity to the border meant that factors such as language were potentially a means to create a sense of belonging for Latinx students. However, the hyper-competitive nature of coursework, and gendered views about engineering may have also been threats to promoting a sense of belonging.

This study’s use of an ethnographic and sociocultural lens to examine the lived experiences of Latinx students in engineering/CS contributes to a small but growing set of studies in this area [25]−[28], with the larger aim of understanding the connection among students’ identities, belonging, and retention in (or attrition from) the field. Findings from this study have implications both in and beyond engineering/CS, and can inform institutional efforts to recruit and retain underrepresented students, particularly Latinx students.


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Esquinca, A., & Mein, E., & Mucino, H. (2021, January), Latinx Students’ Sense of Belonging in Engineering/Computer Science at an HSI Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day .

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