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Learning Equity in First-Year Engineering Design

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the First Year

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First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Emma Tevaarwerk Northwestern University

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Dr. Tevaarwerk DeCosta works as a dedicated first year adviser at the McCormick School of Engineering, where she advises incoming first year students and teaches courses in freshmen design and materials science.

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Kathleen Carmichael Northwestern University


Ordel Brown Northwestern University

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Dr. Ordel Brown is an instructional professor at Northwestern University in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, where she currently teaches first-year engineering and global engineering design courses. Her research interests in engineering education include first-year engineering experience enhancement strategies, retention of underrepresented groups in engineering, inclusion and learning equity in engineering design, and application of critical theory in engineering design.

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Lisa Davidson

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Senior Assessment Associate, Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching

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Elise Gruneisen

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This Complete Research paper investigates the impact of a pedagogical intervention designed to promote equity of learning opportunities for historically underrepresented students in first-year engineering programs. Engineering programs have long struggled to create inclusive and equitable learning environments. Much work has been spearheaded by administrative groups such as departments of Diversity & Inclusion seeking to promote equity through changes to broader institutional culture. Student classroom experiences remain relatively neglected and thus such efforts have rarely inspired STEM faculty buy-in. Consequently, students from historically underrepresented groups, especially those students perceived to have lower social capital, may still face substantial disparities in their classroom experiences, including exclusion from perceived high-profile team roles. A flagship first-year engineering design course at a medium-sized, private university in the Midwest provided a unique opportunity to address many of these disparities. The course covers essential communication skills, how to grapple with complex problems, and the ability to work in teams. Faculty and student feedback, however, suggest that teams may allocate work among team members in ways that inhibit historically underrepresented students from access to the full range of course learning objectives. To improve equity of learning opportunity for all students, the course was modified to include a structured teamwork approach which identifies four key team tasks—primary research, secondary research, training building and testing, and project management—and aligns them with roles assigned to each team member. In five 16-student experimental sections in both fall 2019 and winter 2020, students rotated through the four roles, and the associated planning, doing and documentation. In the control sections, the teams were left to allocate work for themselves. The study used indirect measures of students’ learning rather than direct measures to assess the impact of the intervention. In Fall 2019, experimental sections showed increased growth in five inclusive team based learning outcomes, and six measures associated with course learning objectives. In winter 2020, there were fewer statistically significant differences between experimental and control, with only two inclusive team based outcomes and four course learning outcomes. Since the Fall 2019 and Winter 2020 post-survey data were collected in very different contexts, most notably the start of the pandemic, data from the two quarters cannot be combined into a single larger dataset. However, some of the increased learning associated with inclusive team-based learning outcomes, and course learning outcomes implies some impact across the quarters related to intentional role rotation of work associated with course learning objectives. Although we were not able to isolate the impact on historically underrepresented groups in engineering, the results are encouraging and do imply that it could be beneficial for this population. Future work would look to access a larger group of students in a single context to allow for measurement of the impact on role rotation on historically underrepresented minorities in engineering.

Tevaarwerk, E., & Carmichael, K., & Brown, O., & Davidson, L., & Gruneisen, E. (2021, July), Learning Equity in First-Year Engineering Design Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--37425

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