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The Challenges and Affordances of Engineering Identity as an Analytic Lens

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Motivation, Identity, and Belongingness

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Christine Allison Gray Northern Arizona University

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Christine Allison Gray is a doctoral student in the College of Education at Northern Arizona University. She also serves as a graduate assistant on the Reshaping Norms project in the College of Engineering, Forestry and Natural Sciences.

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Robin Tuchscherer P.E. Northern Arizona University

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Dr. Tuchscherer currently serves as an Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University where he has taught since 2011. Prior to academia, he accumulated eight years of professional experience as a practicing structural engineer and brings a practitioner's perspective to the academic and research setting. He teaches core undergraduate engineering courses, and upper division courses related to the analysis and design of structures. His area of expertise is the analysis, behavior, and design of concrete structures.

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Ron Gray Northern Arizona University

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Ron Gray, Ph.D. is an associate professor of science education in the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at Northern Arizona University. He graduated from Oregon State University with a doctorate in science education. His work largely focuses on providing secondary science teachers the tools to design and implement learning experiences for their students that are effective and authentic to the discipline. Much of this work has been centered on model-based inquiry and the integration of scientific practices in a supportive and structured way. He has been funded by NSF and other agencies to conduct research on preservice teacher education, undergraduate engineering education, and community partnerships in secondary education.

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In this theory paper, we seek to critically review recent scholarship on the construct of engineering identity to help identify the challenges and affordances of its use in engineering education research. The growing interest in fostering a diverse body of aspiring professional engineers has sparked new interest in engineering identity. Traditional research into identity has diverged in several directions, with some scholars arguing that a person’s identity is fixed and stable, while others frame it as a dynamic and situated construct: individuals have multiple “selves” who behave according to the situation. Anthropological perspectives examine other areas like the influence of social categories on identity, and reflect on the power structures inherent in any social categories. Other perspectives emphasize that identity is socially constructed, and highlight the impact of recognition by others on an identity. These diverse identity frameworks will provide a theoretical backdrop for our review.

Engineering offers a unique lens for viewing identity, as it is a context that comes with a distinctive set of historical norms, values, and beliefs. A body of research has grown in attempts to understand what professional identity means for engineering students, how it forms, and to develop measures for studying the construct in this particular context. Identity study has significant practical implications for disciplines like engineering, which continue to struggle to achieve gender and racial parity among undergraduates and professionals: research has demonstrated that the construct of identity serves as a proxy for persistence among engineering undergraduates.

Recent research has sought to demonstrate how identity can be used as an analytic lens, although an operationalized definition of identity in the literature remains elusive. Some researchers examine students’ STEM identity through dimensions, such as competence, performance, recognition, and interest. From other perspectives within developmental psychology, engineering students’ identity is tied to the need to align with the profession in terms of a set of malleable, teachable characteristics necessary for success. Researchers in this area tend to focus on engineering identity as a set of traits available to the individual while acting within the profession. Some quantitative instruments focused on measuring engineering identity have been validated, although these face limitations in terms of the time frame required to measure changes.

Engineers are trained to be empirical and solution-focused. Aligned with this orientation, scholars in engineering identity tend to ground their work in linear and well-defined frameworks that include a short list of criteria, or a collection of traits developed within the context, possibly reflecting the concrete and linear nature of the sciences in general. Although this perspective provides easily definable lenses for analyzing identity, more research is needed into the factors that influence students’ identity development – particularly those that are within the control of engineering educators. This paper will provide a critical review of engineering identity study, pinpoint the challenges and affordances inherent in this work, and discuss the practical implications for engineering educators and scholars.

Gray, C. A., & Tuchscherer, R., & Gray, R. (2018, June), The Challenges and Affordances of Engineering Identity as an Analytic Lens Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--31082

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: © 2018 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