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The Minimization of Microaggressions in Engineering Education

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2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity)


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

February 20, 2022

Start Date

February 20, 2022

End Date

July 20, 2022

Conference Session

Technical Session 9 - Paper 3: The Minimization of Microaggressions in Engineering Education

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Diversity and CoNECD Paper Sessions

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Paper Authors


Stephanie Masta Purdue University Orcid 16x16

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Associate Professor, Purdue University

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Darryl Dickerson Florida International University Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Darryl A. Dickerson is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Materials Engineering at Florida International University (FIU). Dr. Dickerson’s research focuses on transforming multiscale mechanobiological insights into biomanufacturing processes enabling the creation of personalized, fully functional engineered tissues. His research group, the Inclusive Complex Tissue Regeneration Lab (InCTRL), does this through multiscale characterization of complex tissues, fundamental studies on biophysical control of induced pluripotent stem cells, biomaterial development for complex tissue regeneration, and intentionally building inclusion into research design and execution. This connects to his broader vision to make engineering spaces more diverse, more equitable, and more inclusive. He has held administrative positions in programs to broaden the participation of historically excluded students in engineering. Dr. Dickerson’s work in expanding participation in engineering has yielded significant programmatic interventions, institutional change activities, and national strategic initiatives. He also serves as the Director of Engineering Workforce and Education for the CELL-MET ERC. Dr. Dickerson manages the K-12 outreach and research experiences for high school students, teachers, and undergraduates in this role.

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Alice L Pawley Purdue University at West Lafayette (COE) Orcid 16x16

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Alice Pawley (she, her, hers) is a Professor in the School of Engineering Education and an affiliate faculty member in the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, Environmental and Ecological Engineering, and the Purdue Climate Change Research Center at Purdue University. She was co-PI of Purdue’s ADVANCE program from 2008-2014, focusing on the underrepresentation of women in STEM faculty positions. She runs the Feminist Research in Engineering Education Group, whose diverse projects and group members are described at She was a National Academy of Engineering CASEE Fellow in 2007, received a CAREER award in 2010 and a PECASE award in 2012 for her project researching the stories of undergraduate engineering women and men of color and white women, and received the Denice Denton Emerging Leader award from the Anita Borg Institute in 2013. She has been author or co-author on papers receiving ASEE-ERM’s best paper award, the AAEE Best Paper Award, the Benjamin Dasher award, and co-authored the paper nominated by the ASEE Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for ASEE Best PIC Paper for 2018. More recently, she received her school’s Award for Excellence in Mentoring, the Award for Leadership, and a 2019 award from the College of Engineering as an Outstanding Faculty Mentor of Engineering Graduate Students. In 2020 she won the Sterling Olmsted Award from the Liberal Education/Engineering and Society Division of ASEE. She is president of Purdue’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (2020-22). She helped found, fund, and grow the PEER Collaborative, a peer mentoring group of early career and recently tenured faculty and research staff primarily evaluated based on their engineering education research productivity. She can be contacted by email at

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Matthew W. Ohland Purdue University at West Lafayette (COE) Orcid 16x16

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Matthew W. Ohland is Associate Head and the Dale and Suzi Gallagher of Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. He has degrees from Swarthmore College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Florida. His research on the longitudinal study of engineering students, team assignment, peer evaluation, and active and collaborative teaching methods has been supported by the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation and his team received for the best paper published in the Journal of Engineering Education in 2008, 2011, and 2019 and from the IEEE Transactions on Education in 2011 and 2015. Dr. Ohland is an ABET Program Evaluator for ASEE. He was the 2002–2006 President of Tau Beta Pi and is a Fellow of the ASEE, IEEE, and AAAS.

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Microaggressions are brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, and environmental degradations with detrimental cumulative effects on marginalized people. Microaggressions can create a hostile and stressful environment for college students (Smith et al., 2011). Students who experience an unwelcoming classroom climate are at risk for psychological stress, decreased self-esteem, reduced participation, diminished academic performance, and decreased persistence (Hotchkins & Dancy, 2015).

There are three primary types of microaggressions that occur in classrooms: microinsults, microinvalidations, and microassaults (Sue et al, 2008). Microinsults are verbal and behavioral expressions that demean a person’s identity (e.g. telling Black students they sound so articulate). Microinvalidations occur when the lived experiences of marginalized peoples are negated, invalidated, or diminished (e.g. claiming to be “colorblind”). Microassaults are more overt, constituting verbal and non-verbal attacks and avoidant behaviors (e.g. not wanting to sit next to a student of color). Unfortunately, nearly one-third of college students have experienced microaggressions (Boysen, 2012). Microaggressions are often elusive and vague, making it difficult for college students to identify when they occur. However, due to the subtleties of microaggressions, students often doubt their own perceptions. The purpose of this research was to study the marginalization tendencies of engineering teams in engineering classrooms. As part of a larger, multi-year qualitative study, we interviewed 30 students who identified as marginalized and had experienced microaggressions. We found that when students doubted their perceptions, they often identified the microaggressions they experienced as either jokes (e.g. “well I think he was just joking”) or insincere concern (e.g. “it’s hard to know if they really cared or not”).

“It’s just jokes”. Throughout the interviews, Black and Brown students, particularly women, noted that the White men in the group often made comments related to their gender and engineering. Multiple women reported that White men on their teams commented about their lack of make-up and unwillingness to “dress-up” for the team. Yet when reflecting on these interactions the women remarked that “maybe they were just joking.” Several women also shared that the White men on the team would tease them about being an engineering by saying things like “your personality is girl engineer” or “who knew girls could be so good at engineering.” However, the women responded to these comments by stating that these men “are our friends, so they don’t really believe those things.”

Insincere concern. Black and Brown students reported that their interactions with white students often included insincere concern for the workload of Brown Black students. Brown and Black students reported that their White peers often excluded them from group interactions and when confronted, the White peers often indicated Brown and Black students were too busy. Ashley (all names as pseudonyms), a Black woman, shared, “I was given a task and a deadline. When I emailed my group, before the deadline, I was told, ‘oh, we assumed you wouldn’t have time to do this so we already did it.” Rob, a Black male, shared that a White teammate said, “We’ll give you something easy so you can stay caught up.” When Jessica confronted her team about not communicating with her, they said to her “We kinda felt that with you being a Black woman and all, you’d be busy all the time.” The challenge with insincere concern is that students struggled to know if they should confront peers on their seemingly racist behavior or accept that they were legitimately concerned. Donna was quick to point out this dilemma in her interview. As she shared, “When I brought these concerns to my friends they said, that doesn’t seem racist. And I replied back, it’s not that the only options are you’re either racist or you’re not--there are a lot of in-between racists!”

In this paper, we will further elaborate on these forms of justification and highlight how instructors and students can recognize these forms of microaggressions when observing students in teams.

References Boysen, G. A. (2012). Teacher and student perceptions of microaggressions in college classrooms. College Teaching, 60(3), 122-129. Hotchkins, B. K., & Dancy, T. (2015). Black Male Student Leaders in Predominantly White Universities: Stories of Power, Preservation, and Persistence. Western Journal of Black Studies, 39(1), 30-44. Smith, W.A., Hung, M., & Franklin, J.D. (2011). Racial battle fatigue and the “mis”education of Black men: Racial microaggressions, societal problems, and environmental stress. Journal of Negro Education, 80(1), 63-82. Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., & Holder, A. (2008). Racial microaggressions in the life experience of Black Americans. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39(3), 329-336.

Masta, S., & Dickerson, D., & Pawley, A. L., & Ohland, M. W. (2022, February), The Minimization of Microaggressions in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity) , New Orleans, Louisiana.

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: © 2022 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