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Rethinking Engineering Pathways: An Exploration of the Diverse K-12 School Experiences of Six Black Engineering Undergraduates

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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

Minorities in Engineering Division Technical Session 8

Tagged Division

Minorities in Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Bruk T. Berhane University of Maryland, College Park

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Dr. Bruk T. Berhane received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland in 2003, after which he was hired by The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) where he worked on nanotechnology. In 2005 he left JHU/APL for a fellowship with the National Academies where he conducted research on methods of increasing the number of women in engineering. After a brief stint teaching mathematics in Baltimore City following his departure from the National Academies, he began working for the Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering (CMSE) in the Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland.
In 2011, he began working directly under the Office of the Dean in the Clark School. Currently, he serves the college as Assistant Director of the Office of Undergraduate Recruitment and Scholarship Programs. His current duties entail working with prospective freshmen and transfer students. Since assuming his duties, he has helped to increase the enrollment of freshmen underrepresented students of color to 17%. New freshmen women admitted to the Clark School have also increased during his tenure from 27% in 2012 to 37% this year.
Bruk completed a master’s degree in engineering management at George Washington University in 2007. In 2016, he earned a Ph.D. in the Minority and Urban Education Unit of the College of Education at the University of Maryland. His dissertation research focuses on factors that facilitate transfer among Black engineering community college students.

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Felicia James Onuma

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A Phi Beta Kappa graduate, Felicia received her bachelor’s degree in Sociology and a minor in Social Policy from the Johns Hopkins University. During her undergraduate years, Felicia accrued a vast amount of experiences. To name a few, she taught English in Denmark, served as an Admissions Representative at her alma-mater, interned at the Center for Law & Social Policy in D.C., and attended events and hearings at the White House, U.S. Capitol, and the Center for American Progress. Felicia is currently a Master’s degree candidate in Higher Education at the University of Maryland. She currently holds an administrative assistantship at the Incentive Awards Program (IAP), a research assistantship at the A. James Clark School of Engineering, and a teaching assistant position. Felicia has conducted qualitative research, submitted drafts for conference papers, and assisted with writing a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation. Felicia will be returning this fall to University of Maryland as a doctoral student in Higher Education. Felicia's research interest is studying the factors that facilitate the success of high-achieving Black students in STEM, particularly those at highly selective colleges and universities.

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Stephen Secules University of Maryland, College Park Orcid 16x16

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Stephen received a PhD in education at the University of Maryland researching engineering education. He has a prior academic and professional background in engineering, having worked professionally as an acoustical engineer. He has taught an introduction to engineering to undergraduate engineers and to practicing K-12 teachers. Stephen's research interests include equity, culture, and the sociocultural dimensions of engineering education.

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Studies that explore the academic pathways of Black STEM undergraduates have often generalized these students’ K-12 experiences. Researchers frequently note the impact of underfunded and overburdened majority-Black schools. This structural disadvantage is a presumed cause for African Americans’ underperformance in baccalaureate STEM programs, particularly when these students are compared to their White and Asian counterparts. While this work has been important in highlighting the challenges facing majority-minority populations, with few exceptions this scholarship tends not to disaggregate Black students’ varied K-12 experiences. This can in effect amalgamate very diverse K-12 accounts into a sweeping deficit-laden narrative. Drawing on a study that employed qualitative methodologies to unpack the experiences of Black transfer students in engineering, our paper illuminates heterogeneous primary and secondary school experiences for six participants broadly classified as “Black” or “African American.” Using individual interviews and focus groups, this study explored the similarities and differences between the participants’ pre-college educational backgrounds. The findings that we describe demonstrate the ways in which some academically talented engineering undergraduates benefit from pre-college instruction in STEM courses. In addition, we present a more contextualized description of the differences between the various types of schools that Black engineering students may attend. We closely examine descriptive differences between the public school experiences of two respondents and the private school experiences of one respondent; each interviewee was educated in the U.S. Apparent differences included an emphasis on pursuing science-based degrees for a private school attendee, versus an emphasis on mathematics and mathematical competencies for undergraduates who attended American public schools. On the other hand, all Black African students in the study attended private schools in their home countries. In their interviews, they recalled fairly demanding classes, which seemed to prepare them well for their undergraduate studies. Through our literature review and qualitative research, we attempt to build a foundation for unpacking the diverse school experiences that Black children may encounter. In addition, we begin to address the literature gap concerning the lack of attention that studies have placed on understanding African students’ K-12 experiences. In this process, we reveal ways in which these challenging curricula in African countries may be enhancing students’ knowledge in STEM disciplines. Our study complements and adds nuance to many of the current literature on Black K-12 experiences. The results of this paper can inform recruitment and retention efforts that aim to support Black students in undergraduate engineering programs. For example, practitioners who oversee Minority Engineering Programs (MEPs) may be better able to provide differentiated support to students with diverse pre-college academic experiences.

Berhane, B. T., & Onuma, F. J., & Secules, S. (2017, June), Rethinking Engineering Pathways: An Exploration of the Diverse K-12 School Experiences of Six Black Engineering Undergraduates Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28805

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2017 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015