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"Turning away" from the Struggling Individual Student: An Account of the Cultural Construction of Engineering Ability in an Undergraduate Programming Class

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Engineering Cultures and Identity

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Tagged Topics

Diversity and ASEE Diversity Committee

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Paper Authors


Stephen Douglas Secules University of Maryland, College Park

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Stephen is an Education PhD student at UMD, researching engineering education. He has a prior academic and professional background in engineering, having worked professionally as an acoustical engineer. He has taught introduction to engineering design in the Keystone Department at the UMD A. James Clark Engineering School. Stephen's research interests include equity, culture, and the sociocultural dimensions of engineering education.

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Andrew Elby University of Maryland, College Park

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

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Ayush Gupta University of Maryland, College Park

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Ayush Gupta is Assistant Research 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 and engineering ethics education.

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This study explores localized ability hierarchies in an undergraduate programming class for electrical engineers in order to deconstruct them as cultural constructions rather than “abilities” of individual students. It highlights local classroom interactional, systemic structural, and broader cultural forces which provide support for identifying ability in a local setting.

Theoretical Framework

Our paper draws on and adds to a small but significant body of work that connects local classroom-level interactions to broader patterns of student outcomes (Carlone, Haun-Frank, & Webb, 2011; Tonso, 2006; Esmonde, 2009). We are primarily guided by McDermott (2006) in our attempt to deconstruct engineering ability (and the lack thereof) as a cultural construction.


We are studying the implementation of a novel microprocessor-based programming class for electrical engineers at a Major East Coast University. Qualitative data collection from a semester-long 30-person class included one-on-one student interviews, lecture and lab section fieldnoted observations, video of student labwork, and written work. In this paper, we foreground a prototypical student from one lab section who is effectively acquired by a deficit category of students “not cut out for engineering.” In our analysis we “turn away” (Varenne & McDermott, 1999, p. 217) from the individual struggling student to focus on the ways in which everything from classroom interactions and institutional policies to broader social patterns and cultural values, construct this student’s failure.


At a very basic level, students’ programming background (partially) constructed their engineering ability or lack thereof. Students and instructors used programming background labels to interpret individual students’ achievement in the class. Instead of taking it for granted, we interrogate this label as a cultural construction to unlock new understandings of its power in shaping students’ experiences of the class. Contributions to this cultural construction include an economic system which values programming as an important skill for engineers, a time period wherein programming has achieved partial normativity in the educational preparation of American undergraduate students, a differentiation of programming ability amongst lines of privilege associated with socioeconomic status, race, and gender, and a set of particular students in a class on whom these differentiations have become locally inscribed.

Engineering ability was also constructed via local interactions constrained by larger systemic and cultural processes. In lecture, advanced questions were affirmed and encouraged, leaving little time for more basic questions and content learning. Class participants understood who had ability and who did not based on these “performances” of ability. In lab, weeks with time-constrained individual lab-work made public which students were finishing a lab first or last. We suggest that these interactions are constrained within the broader cultural forces of product-focused (and not learning-focused) engineering education, and meritocratic university sorting procedures.


Our findings implicate many of the interactional mechanisms and cultural underpinnings involved with day-to-day instantiations of ability and inequity in undergraduate engineering classes. By locating the problems outside of individuals, this research intends to be a first step towards finding new operational solutions to problems of equity and access long seen as intractable and inevitable.

References Carlone, H. B., Haun-Frank, J., & Webb, A. (2011). Assessing equity beyond knowledge- and skills-based outcomes: A comparative ethnography of two fourth-grade reform-based science classrooms. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 48(5), 459–485. doi:10.1002/tea.20413

Esmonde, I. (2009). Mathematics Learning in Groups: Analyzing Equity in Two Cooperative Activity Structures. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 18(2), 247–284.

McDermott, R., & Varenne, H. (2006). Reconstructing culture in educational research. In Spindler, G., & Hammond, L. (Eds.) Innovations in educational ethnography: Theory, methods, and results, pp. 1-33.

Tonso, K. L. (2006). Teams that work: Campus culture, engineer identity, and social interactions. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(1), 25-37.

Secules, S. D., & Elby, A., & Gupta, A. (2016, June), "Turning away" from the Struggling Individual Student: An Account of the Cultural Construction of Engineering Ability in an Undergraduate Programming Class Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26239

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