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Training Engineering Students to Use Stories for Student Empowerment and Community-Building: The Re-Engineering Engineering Education Program at the USC School of Engineering

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2021 CoNECD


Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day

Publication Date

January 24, 2021

Start Date

January 24, 2021

End Date

January 28, 2021

Conference Session

CoNECD Session: Day 3 - Slot 3 -- Technical Session 4

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Submissions

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Paper Authors


Brandi P. Jones University of Southern California

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Dr. Brandi P. Jones is the Vice Dean for Diversity and Strategic Initiatives and Associate Professor of Engineering Education Practice at Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California. She works collaboratively with colleagues on strategies to increase the diversity and enhance the experiences of students, faculty, and staff, ensure an inclusive culture, and promote retention through activities, programs, and events. Dr. Jones assumes a leadership role in the national engineering diversity and inclusion conversation regarding standards, benchmarks and best practices. She brings experience and proven track record of success in diversity and student development related work. Dr. Jones has held positions at Princeton University, California Institute of Technology, Occidental College, and California State University, Long Beach. Dr. Jones' professional experience is enhanced by her Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania, combined with her research focus on experiences of underrepresented minority students in engineering disciplines.

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Helen Choi University of Southern California

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Helen Choi is a Lecturer at Engineering Writing Program at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. She teaches Advanced Writing and Communication for Engineers and is the Co-Chair of the USC Academic Senate Campus Climate Committee. She is a former corporate attorney, licensed to practice in New York and California.

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Cheyenne Gaima

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Training Engineering Students to Use Stories for Student Empowerment and Community-Building: The Re-Engineering Engineering Education Program at the USC School of Engineering

Undergraduate, Engineering, Race/Ethnicity, Gender

Today’s world of exponential changes exerts significant growth opportunities for organizational culture that require agility, growth and adaptation. To that end, we envision educational experiences that enhance the strong cultural awareness of today’s world where society, humanity and technology are inextricably interwoven. This cultural mindset encompasses the brain and the heart -- competence and character. These are fundamentally attributes grounded in empathy and are essential to 21st century engineering education.

However, undergraduate engineering education has traditionally emphasized technical skills over communication skills and other human-centered disciplines. In addition, engineering, as both an academic field and a profession, embodies vast disparities in representation of people from marginalized communities. As a result, many underrepresented engineering undergraduates feel that they must ignore parts of themselves and their lives when they enter the engineering space.

At the [XXX] School of Engineering, many students have expressed similar sentiments and have also experienced difficulties cultivating an authentic sense of belonging in the university’s engineering community. As a large engineering school of 2,700 undergraduates within an even larger overall undergraduate population of about 20,000, the school has observed that some students report feeling frequently disconnected and disempowered - especially if they are from underrepresented or marginalized backgrounds, far from home, or new to the college experience. (Such experiences may likely be more pronounced and exacerbated since the spring of 2020 when much of student learning moved online in the midst of a global pandemic with outsized impact on marginalized communities and during a time of heightened examinations of structural injustice in America.)

To address these areas of disconnect for students that existed well before the added pressures from spring 2020, [XXX] faculty and administrators during the fall of 2019 developed a program called Re-Engineering Engineering Education (RE3) where undergraduate engineering students are hired and trained to share their personal stories and teach storytelling to fellow engineering students, engineering faculty, and other members of the engineering community. These engineering students, called “Student Trainers,” are placed in the position of teachers, and storytelling skills and storysharing are presented as part of engineering educational experience.

RE3 was launched as a one-year pilot program with funding from the Office of the Dean at the [XXX] School of Engineering and a $25,000 mini-grant from the Coalition for Life-Transformative Education (CLTE). CLTE is a consortium of university leaders interested in exploring ways to provide college students with a transformative educational experience that addresses their well-being and promotes their understanding of their life’s purpose. The totality of the CLTE mini-grant was spent on Student Trainers’ stipends and materials.

The RE3 program consists of three phrases: In Phase 1 (Spring 2020 and Summer 2020), ten undergraduate engineering students were hired as Student Trainers and trained at several retreats during the summer. During the faculty-guided retreats, Student Trainers learned about storytelling, created their own stories, and developed their lesson plans for their storytelling sessions in Phases 2 and 3. In Phase 2 (Fall 2020), Student Trainers will teach incoming first-year engineering students about storytelling, share their personal stories, and teach students how to share their stories as part of the curriculum of a first-year introductory seminar on engineering attended by hundreds of students. In Phase 3 (Spring 2021), Student Trainers will expand their teaching to other members of the school community, such as faculty, staff, and administrators.

Storytelling was chosen as the medium in order to highlight student voices and center students’ narrative capital in the engineering community to increase awareness of student issues and expand student voices in policy and program decisions at the school. Sample story topics of Student Trainers include: “How Did You Get Here?” - and Other Common Questions Navigating the Engineering Classroom as a Woman of Color Being a First-Generation College Student in Engineering Transfer Students’ Journeys Being LGBTQIA+ and (Un)seen in Engineering Studying Engineering in a Country that Considers You the Enemy When No One Wants to be Your Lab Partner

In addition to storytelling’s ability to empower and center the voices of storytellers, storytelling serves as an important means of building community - as storytelling spaces are communal ones where values are shared and bonds reinforced. Storytellers are affirmed, esteemed, and provided with a powerful place in the front of the classroom. Fellow students, faculty, and other members of the engineering community who listen to the Student Trainers actualize their roles as empathetic listeners and life-long learners. And when the engineering community pro-actively comes together to highlight and share stories, they spread a powerful message that human-centered experiences and personal connections are critical to engineering.

As an extracurricular and curricular program, RE3’s learning objectives for Student Trainers and those who attend their seminars are distinct.

For Student Trainers, learning objectives include: developing their identities as learners, teachers, and members of the community composing a personal story demonstrating their storytelling skills modeling human-centered discussions in engineering settings

Learning objectives for first-year students and community members who attend RE3 seminars include: exercising listening skills examining different student perspectives and experiences participating in short storytelling exercises understanding how storytelling can build a sense of community

The conference presentation will discuss specific workings, challenges, impact, and next steps of the RE3 program at the [XXX] School of Engineering. It will also include a storytelling presentation by one or more RE3 Student Trainers so that attendees can experience the power of student voices first-hand.

Jones, B. P., & Choi, H., & Gaima, C. (2021, January), Training Engineering Students to Use Stories for Student Empowerment and Community-Building: The Re-Engineering Engineering Education Program at the USC School of Engineering Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day . 10.18260/1-2--36131

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