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Maintaining the Individual within a Climate of Indifference: Specialization vs. Standardization in the Factory Model of Engineering Education

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Diversity and Inclusion

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Janet Y. Tsai University of Colorado, Boulder Orcid 16x16

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Janet Y. Tsai is a researcher and instructor in the Engineering Plus program at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on ways to encourage more students, especially women and those from nontraditional demographic groups, to pursue interests in the field of engineering. Janet assists in recruitment and retention efforts locally, nationally, and internationally, hoping to broaden the image of engineering, science, and technology to include new forms of communication and problem solving for emerging grand challenges. A second vein of Janet's research seeks to identify the social and cultural impacts of technological choices made by engineers in the process of designing and creating new devices and systems. Her work considers the intentional and unintentional consequences of durable structures, products, architectures, and standards in engineering education, to pinpoint areas for transformative change.

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Jacquelyn F. Sullivan University of Colorado, Boulder

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Jacquelyn Sullivan is founding co-director of the 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; this program is now being adapted at several engineering colleges. Sullivan led the founding of the Precollege division of ASEE in 2004; was awarded NAE’s 2008 Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, and was conferred as an ASEE Fellow in 2011. She has served on multiple NAE committees, and on the NSF ENG division's Advisory Committee.

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Beth A. Myers University of Colorado Boulder

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Beth A. Myers is the Director of Assessment and Accreditation at the University of Colorado Boulder. She holds a BA in biochemistry, ME in engineering management and PhD in civil engineering. Her interests are in quantitative and qualitative research and data analysis as related to equity in education.

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Kevin O'Connor University of Colorado, Boulder Orcid 16x16

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Kevin O’Connor is assistant professor of Educational Psychology and Learning Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. His scholarship focuses on human action, communication, and learning as socioculturally organized phenomena. A major strand of his research explores the varied trajectories taken by students as they attempt to enter professional disciplines such as engineering, and focuses on the dilemmas encountered by students as they move through these institutionalized trajectories. He is co-editor of a 2010 National Society for the Study of Education Yearbook, Learning Research as a Human Science. Other work has appeared in Linguistics and Education; Mind, Culture, and Activity; Anthropology & Education Quarterly, the Encyclopedia of Cognitive Science; the Journal of Engineering Education; and the Cambridge Handbook of Engineering Education Research. His teaching interests include developmental psychology; sociocultural theories of communication, learning, and identity; qualitative methods; and discourse analysis.

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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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