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“Learning from small numbers” of underrepresented students’ stories: Discussing a method to learn about institutional structure through narrative

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Culture, Race, and Gender Issues

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1405.1 - 23.1405.21



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Paper Authors


Alice L. Pawley Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Alice L. Pawley is an Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering Education and an affiliate faculty member in the Women’s Studies Program and the Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering at Purdue University. She has a B.Eng. in chemical engineering from McGill University, and an M.S. and a Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering with a Ph.D. minor in women’s studies from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is Co-PI and Research Director of Purdue University’s ADVANCE program, and PI on the Assessing Sustainability Knowledge project. She runs the Research in Feminist Engineering (RIFE) group, whose diverse projects and group members are described at the web- site She is interested in creating new models for thinking about gender and race in the context of engineering education. She was awarded a CAREER grant in 2010 for the project, ”Learning from Small Numbers: Using personal narratives by underrepresented undergraduate students to promote institutional change in engineering education.” She received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) award in 2012. She can be contacted by email at

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Learning from students’ stories: A method to see how institutional structure influences underrepresented engineering undergraduate students’ educational experiencesThe underrepresentation of women and men of color and white women in undergraduateengineering programs continues to be cause for concern by national engineering bodies,university administrations, and disciplinary organizations. Extensive research and interventionprogramming has gone into understanding this underrepresentation, and why it persists despitenational and institutional focus and funding. However, this paper argues that most previousstudies and interventions have been hampered by three challenges: (1) they tend to depend onstatistical methods of generalization to understand the experiences of underrepresented people,despite the fact that the numbers of such people are usually too low to make analysis of themstatistically significant; (2) these studies tend to result in interventions not in the structure ofinstitutions, but in the behavior of students themselves, and in their adaptation to theirinstitutions; and (3) such studies and interventions usually examine women and people of colorat predominantly white educational institutions (PWIs), and thus fail to focus on institutionswhich have showed relatively better success.This paper describes an ongoing study that responds to each of these challenges in turn. Ratherthan study students statistically, this study imports research tools designed by sociologists toexamine small numbers of people; rather than using its findings to shape student behavior andcommunicate with students, it uses them to investigate institutional structure and communicatewith administrators; and rather than focusing on PWIs which have historically served suchpopulations poorly, it also includes minority serving institutions (MSIs) allowing it to uncovernot only problems, but also already-functioning solutions.This study's research questions are: 1) How do underrepresented undergraduate engineeringstudents describe their interactions with educational institutions through personal narratives? and2) What institutional factors do these narratives reveal that affect the educational persistence andsuccess of white women and students of color in undergraduate engineering educationalinstitutions? This paper describes the use of personal narratives about engineering educationcontributed by white women and students of color in undergraduate programs in order tounderstand how the structure of their educational institution assists and hinders their educationalsuccess. This paper extensively describes the methodology and methods being used, includingdata collection and cleaning procedures, inductive and deductive coding passes, and datadisplays, of this ongoing study. It will also include a preliminary analysis of data currentlycollected, along with a discussion of potential institutional policy implications.  

Pawley, A. L. (2013, June), “Learning from small numbers” of underrepresented students’ stories: Discussing a method to learn about institutional structure through narrative Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19030

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