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Participation in Small Group Engineering Design Activities at the Middle School Level: An Investigation of Gender Differences

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Pre-College Engineering Education Focused on Female Students

Tagged Division

Pre-College Engineering Education

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Jeanna R. Wieselmann University of Minnesota Orcid 16x16

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Jeanna R. Wieselmann is a Ph.D. Candidate in Curriculum and Instruction and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on gender equity in STEM and maintaining elementary girls' interest in STEM through both in-school and out-of-school experiences. She is interested in integrated STEM curriculum development and teacher professional development to support gender-equitable teaching practices.

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Emily Anna Dare Florida International University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Emily Dare is an Assistant Professor of Science Education at Florida International University. Previously, she taught at Michigan Technological University from 2015-2018, where she is still an affiliated faculty member in the Department of Cognitive and Learning Sciences. Dr. Dare's research interests are focused on K-12 STEM education. In particular, she is interested in supporting science teachers’ reform-based instruction while simultaneously understanding their beliefs. As science classrooms shift to more integrated STEM approaches, this is especially critical. Additionally, Dr. Dare has a passion for working with K-12 students to understand how changes in classroom instruction impacts their attitudes towards and beliefs about STEM fields. In particular, she is looking at methods that positively impact girls, which may increase the number of women pursuing careers in STEM-related fields where they are currently underrepresented.

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Gillian Roehrig University of Minnesota Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Roehrig is a professor of STEM Education at the University of Minnesota. Her research explores issues of professional development for K-12 science teachers, with a focus on beginning teachers and implementation of integrated STEM learning environments. She has received over $30 million in federal and state grants and published over 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters. She is a former board member of the National Association of Research in Science Teaching and past president of the Association for Science Teacher Education.

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Elizabeth Ring-Whalen St. Catherine University

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Elizabeth A. Ring-Whalen is an Assistant Professor of Education at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN. She holds a PhD in Curriculum and Instruction - STEM Education from the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on STEM education and what this looks like in PreK-12 classrooms and explores teachers’ beliefs of integrated STEM as well as how these beliefs influence teachers’ practices and student achievement in the classroom. Alongside this research, she has worked to explore the attitudes and beliefs teachers hold about cultural diversity and teaching culturally diverse students. Past and current projects include designing and teaching undergraduate and graduate-level coursework intended to help teachers develop effective science teaching practices and culturally relevant pedagogy for their classrooms, mentoring pre-service science teachers, working with in-service science teachers to develop and implement integrated STEM curricula, leading STEM integration professional development for in-service science teachers, working with administration and teachers to develop STEM programming in their schools, and developing a K-12 STEM observation protocol that can be used in a variety of educational contexts through an online platform.

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Women remain underrepresented in engineering, and early engineering experiences may promote increased interest among girls. Teamwork and communication are key components of engineering, yet little is known about how girls in middle school participate in small group engineering design challenges. Previous research has illuminated gender differences in small group participation in elementary science and undergraduate engineering, but there is a gap in the literature around middle school engineering in formal education. This study addresses the research questions: What differences, if any, are seen in the engineering practices middle school girls and boys display during an engineering design challenge? and How, if at all, is group gender composition related to students’ participation in small group engineering design activities?

This study utilized an embedded case study methodology and was situated within a five-year, NSF-funded research project focused on developing K-12 science teachers’ understanding of the engineering design process. Teams of teachers wrote engineering-focused curricular units and implemented these units in their classrooms. This study examines the small group participation of students experiencing teacher-written, engineering-focused science units. Data were collected throughout unit implementation. Data sources included video and audio of small groups, student work artifacts, implementation field notes, and researcher memos.

To analyze the data, each researcher watched the small group video and took detailed memos about an individual student within each small group to better understand individual patterns of participation. Researchers coded the frequency with which each student displayed performance enactments. The codes included both verbal and nonverbal means of participation, such as directing peers, disagreeing, expressing frustration, initiating activity, and forcefully controlling the activity. Once interrater reliability was established, researchers coded student participation in three-minute segments of the unit. Coding for each segment was binary: 1 indicated the presence of a performance enactment and 0 indicated the performance enactment’s absence.

Findings illustrate varying patterns of participation among girls and boys and across different group gender compositions. Overall, the all-girls group had highly cohesive group dynamics and shared in leadership responsibilities. They were familiar with the more structured aspects of engineering design, such as record keeping and developing initial plans guided by a worksheet. However, they struggled to stay focused and productive in the open-ended design activities. In the all-boys group, students' levels of participation varied widely. A clear group leader took responsibility for the bulk of the design activities, with his peers participating sporadically.

Girls in the mixed-gender group dominated the activities, though boys in the group attempted to become more involved in the less structured engineering activities. Given the boys' past lack of participation in the more structured activities, however, the girls were reluctant to shift any responsibility for the design to the boys. this resulted in conflict and frustration within the mixed-gender group.

Findings suggest that young girls and boys engage in engineering practices to different degrees and that the gender composition of their small group is related to their performance enactments. As engineering becomes increasingly common in pre-college education, students will need additional practice and support engaging in open-ended engineering design challenges equitably. With a need to support girls’ interest in engineering, this work fills a gap in the literature and has implications for curriculum development, instructional strategies, and future research.

Wieselmann, J. R., & Dare, E. A., & Roehrig, G., & Ring-Whalen, E. (2019, June), Participation in Small Group Engineering Design Activities at the Middle School Level: An Investigation of Gender Differences Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33158

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