June 24, 2017
June 24, 2017
June 28, 2017
Educational Research and Methods
This research paper employs data from the study of a novel next-tier access program to illustrate a conundrum in engineering education research: How to preserve our students as whole people within the reductive systems of assessment and institutional record-keeping which repeatedly relegate individuals into single numbers believed to accurately represent their learning or preparation, or even their worthiness of belonging in engineering. In adopting a mixed-methods approach to assess and continually improve our broadening participation access program, both quantitative and qualitative elements of our research have highlighted in our engineering college the prevalence of systems of standardization which are designed to produce a high number of credentialed engineering graduates annually – not unlike a factory which takes in raw materials in the form of students and outputs finished goods in the shape of engineering graduates. This factory model of engineering education, like any quality system of mass production, optimizes for efficiency by standardizing processes. In undergraduate engineering degree programs, this is apparent from the relatively inflexible standard curricular paths within any given major and the use of midterm and final exams as “go or no-go” measurement gauges to determine which student products are of sufficient quality to move onto the next step (or class) in the assembly line of curricular requirements. An important aspect of this factory model is that the college is systematically indifferent as to which students graduate and which go elsewhere since standardization of the process and objective assessments are assumed to ensure fairness.
The qualitative branch of our research integrates findings across focus group, interview, and observational data to demonstrate the tension inherent in maintaining our broadening participation access program’s high-touch, personalized values within our larger institution’s methodical indifference towards students as individuals. This clash is exemplified through our telling of the development and implementation of a pre-calculus course intended to support students’ progression towards “calculus readiness.” This paper describes the evolution of this pre-calculus course as it becomes absorbed by the larger institution and expanded beyond the high-touch access model, with detrimental consequences for student success as the class moves from specialized to standardized.
Running in parallel, the quantitative branch of our research additionally explores large datasets to quantify the pool of potential undergraduate engineering students based on typical admissions criteria employed nationwide at research-active universities. This paper integrates quantitative and qualitative findings to highlight and challenge the assumptions and outcomes of the factory model of education in the venue of pre-calculus, while illuminating our systematic dependence on reducing students into representative numbers like exam scores and GPAs for appropriate tracking and placement. Viewed with sensitivity against reproducing indifferent systems of standardization, we examine what is lost when we persist in decomposing and condensing students into single numbers.
Alternatively, we propose methods of preserving students as whole people within these reductionist, mechanistic environments of large scale undergraduate engineering education. We further demonstrate that a high-touch, high-expectations program can coexist within a larger institutional climate of indifference, supporting transformational (and almost heretofore unimaginable) breakthroughs in broadening participation in engineering education.
Tsai, J. Y., & Sullivan, J. F., & Myers, B. A., & O'Connor, K. (2017, June), Maintaining the Individual within a Climate of Indifference: Specialization vs. Standardization in the Factory Model of Engineering Education Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28637
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