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Theorizing Can Contribute to Marginalized Students' Agency in Engineering Persistence

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division: Curricular Programs

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1582.1 - 26.1582.18



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Paper Authors


Stephen Secules University of Maryland, College Park

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Stephen is an Education PhD student at UMCP, researching engineering education. He has a prior academic and professional background in engineering, having worked as an engineer and project manager in building acoustics consulting firms for 5 years prior to becoming an educational researcher. His research interests include socio-cultural dimensions of engineering classrooms.

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Ayush Gupta University of Maryland, College Park

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Ayush Gupta is Research Assistant Professor in Physics and Keystone Instructor in the A. J. Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland. Broadly speaking he is interested in modeling learning and reasoning processes. In particular, he is attracted to fine-grained analysis of video data both from a micro-genetic learning analysis methodology (drawing on knowledge in pieces) as well as interaction analysis methodology. He has been working on how learners' emotions are coupled with their conceptual and epistemological reasoning. He is also interested in developing models of the dynamics of categorizations (ontological) underlying students' reasoning in physics. Lately, he has been interested in engineering design thinking, how engineering students come to understand and practice design.

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Andrew Elby University of Maryland, College Park

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My work focuses on student and teacher epistemologies and how they couple to other cognitive machinery and help to drive behavior in learning environments. My academic training was in Physics and Philosophy before I turned to science (particularly physics) education research. More recently, I have started exploring engineering students' entangled identities and epistemologies.

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Critical theorizing can contribute to marginalized students' agency in engineering persistence.Within qualitative research on the persistence of underrepresented students in undergraduateengineering majors, the concept of student agency has typically focused on either physicalactions that reshape their academic and social experience (e.g. seeking out academic support,pursuing a summer internship), or internal psychological mechanisms for support (Seymour &Hewitt, 1997; Stevens, O’Connor, Garrison, Jocuns, & Amos, 2008). In critical theory, bycontrast, agency in oppression goes further to include naming the oppression and occupying thetheorizing space (Yosso, 2005). Generally the oppressing majoritarian forces occupy thetheorizing space, and shape the narrative which forms the basis of interpreting “objective” truth.Here the acts of theorizing, including criticizing and deconstructing the dominant narrative, aresubversive and agentic in themselves.This paper investigates the role of critical theorizing on marginalized students' persistence inengineering, through an analysis of agency in the narrative interviews of a woman, Rachel, in thefirst year of an undergraduate engineering major.The data comes from video and transcription of 3 in depth one-on-one interviews. Whenanalyzing the narrative data, we used narrative and thematic analysis (Connelly & Clandinin,2003) to track the development of several of Rachel’s smaller sub-narratives over time. Weexamined any shifts in the degree and form of agency in the retellings of these stories andthemes, to look for evidence of critical theorizing. Several sub-narratives have been exploredincluding “Where do I fit in engineering,” “I suck at math,” and women in engineering. Theresults from the “Where do I fit in engineering” sub-narrative are briefly outlined below.In the first video, as a student in her first semester of the engineering major, we see Rachel asengaged in a process of defining engineering and herself as an engineer. In the first semesterinterview, the dominant narrative Rachel receives about engineering is that it is monolithic,heavily technical, and uncreative; whereas she extrapolates her own identity as a nontechnicalleader, creative, and communicative. This leads her to doubt her future in engineering. In theSpring term Rachel takes an English class which involves tutoring high school students andreflecting on education. There she encounters several pedagogical theories which she connects tomany of the prior term’s complaints. She reflects on the concept of plurality in education inorder to criticize the engineering department’s monolithic stance. This strengthens her ownengineering identity, and reframes her persistence in the engineering department as making hermore well-rounded, whereas she characterizes the purely technical engineers as not developingher strengths of communication and creativity to the same extent.Thus we see a shift in Rachel’s narrative on the subject of “Where do I fit in engineering?” fromthe first interview to the second. In the first interview, Rachel is resistant and frustrated with theway engineering is being presented, but her critiques focus more on specific class practices andher struggles cause her to question her engineering trajectory and position. In the secondinterview she moves to a much more actively critical position, where she connects many of theprior complaints to newfound pedagogical theories, cultural analysis, and impressions of realworld value. Her narrative construction is a good example of liberatory theory (hooks, 1992) atwork empowering marginalized groups in the process of making meaning of theiroppression. What results is agency on several levels, including the power to question one’ssurroundings and to form a coherent, theoretically-grounded critique of the system, and theenhanced freedom and ability to take agentic actions.While agency is commonly discussed as a personal drive or an element of navigationalstrategies, our work suggests that the act of critical theorizing within narratives of engineeringpersistence is an important aspect of student agency which deserves our further attention. References:Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (2003). Narrative Inquiry. In J. L. Green, J. L. Green, G. Camilli, P. B. Elmore, & P. B. Elmore (Eds.), Handbook of Complementary Methods in Education Research (pp. 477–487). Mahwah, N.J: Routledge.hooks, bell. (1992). Theory as Liberatory Practice. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, 34(1990), 1–12.Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. M. (1997). Talking About Leaving: Why undergraduates leave the sciences. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Stevens, R., O’Connor, K., Garrison, L., Jocuns, A., & Amos, D. M. (2008). Becoming an Engineer: Toward a Three Dimensional View of Engineering Learning. Journal of Engineering Education, (July), 355–368.Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91. doi:10.1080/1361332052000341006

Secules, S., & Gupta, A., & Elby, A. (2015, June), Theorizing Can Contribute to Marginalized Students' Agency in Engineering Persistence Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24918

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