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Using Motivational Interviewing to Assist Engineering Students in Finding a More Inclusive Way Forward

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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 8 Technical Session 2

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Submissions

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Paper Authors


Philippa Anne Martin University of Canterbury

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Philippa A. Martin received the B.E. (Hons. 1) and Ph.D. degrees in electrical and electronic engineering from the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1997 and 2001, respectively. She completed a Postgraduate Certificate in Tertiary Teaching in 2015 and a Postgraduate Certificate in Strategic Leadership in 2018. She was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Canterbury in 2001-2004. In 2002, she spent 5 months as a visiting researcher in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. Since 2004, she has been an academic at the University of Canterbury, where she is now a Professor and the Dean of first year engineering. Her current education research interests include video tutorials to augment in person teaching, team work skills development, inclusive cohort formation, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives for tertiary engineering education. Her current technical engineering research interests are around physical layer wireless communications systems and algorithms for a broad range of applications.

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Eileen Frances Britt University of Canterbury

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Eileen Britt is a Clinical Psychologist and member of the Motivational Interviewing (MI) Network of Trainers, an international collective of MI trainers and researchers who promote excellence in the practice and training of MI. Eileen teaches MI at the University of Canterbury on the Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Psychology programme, as well two postgraduate papers on MI within Health Sciences, and has experience in providing MI training to a range of health practitioners. She has been involved in a recent project training MI to staff from the College of Engineering at the University of Canterbury.

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Title: Using motivational interviewing as a tool to assist engineering students in finding a more inclusive way forward

Abstract: Every year engineering schools admit hundreds to thousands of new engineering students to their programs. All come in with different views of the world, right and wrong, and how to behave as an engineering student. Universities around the world have been trying to tackle sexism, racism, harassment, bullying and unwanted touching on campus. Minority and under-represented minority students in engineering in particular are experiencing a chilly even hostile climate.

Around the globe engineering schools have been looking at how to combat these chilly climates, but the problem has stubbornly remained despite decades of interventions. The impact of a chilly climate and disruptive behavior (such as micro-aggressions, harassment and unkind acts) mounts up and can leave students feeling unwelcome or even unsafe on campus. This can have a big impact on health, education and quality of life. The University response when concerns are raised are not always helpful and can even further harm the student (Ferris, 2004). In (Ferris, 2004), they recommend training organizational representatives.

On the other side, if the micro-aggressors are not made aware that their behavior is unacceptable, then this puts them in a risky position for more serious misconduct processes while at University. In addition, if this behavior continues in the workforce, they are at risk of potentially serious penalties for such behavior and viewpoints. A very public graphic example was the google echo chamber case (Matsakis, 2010). Professional engineering bodies are increasing the consequences of breaching their code of conduct, for example (IPENZ Engineers NZ, 2016). Therefore, it is in the best interests of all parties to address disruptive and disrespectful behavior early on to avoid escalation.

Universities have well defined formal behavior management processes. In this research, we look at adding less formal processes to handle the early warning signs and smaller behavior problems and incidents before they reach formal levels. The key goal here is ensuring a healthy culture and environment for all engineering students. In (Grenny, 2009), it was found that crucial conversations confronting disruptive behavior were an important part of working to eliminate disruptive behavior. In particular, “the real change will occur when we substantially increase skills in conversation – especially the emotionally and politically risky conversations we so consistently avoid” (Grenny, 2009).

As a result, we have trained a small group of staff (academic and professional) to handle difficult change conversations in relation to disruptive and disrespectful behavior. This requires quite a different skill set than engineering training provides. Engineering thinking identifies and solves problems. A directive “fix-it” communication approach is not always what is needed when the conversation is about behavior change. Such an approach can lead to students defending their behavior and/or telling us what they think we want to hear in order to exit the situation. This is unlikely to lead to any real behavioral change.

Motivational interviewing (MI) was chosen as the method for these difficult conversations as it aims to build and strengthen motivation and commitment to change from within a person (Rosengren, 2018). It does this through exploring motivations the person may have to change. At its core are the principles of inspiring change, respecting people, acceptance, compassion and acknowledging that every individual is the expert on themselves. It is a form of person centered counselling, but does not require any previous counselling experience to learn. It was felt that the empowering nature of this approach would fit well with the engineering staff involved, who all had the best interests of the students in mind.

A key program design choice was to involve staff (academic and professional) from across the engineering college and with a wide range of roles. The program was designed to include academics, Deans, administrators, tutors, technicians and library staff. All these staff are student facing. It is hard to predict who a student will feel comfortable talking to and so a wide range of people is an asset. Professional staff, such as technicians, administrators and tutors, can see quite a different side to students than the academic staff, such as Professors and Deans. The training was involved two 1-hour sessions each week with a total of 15 sessions. This allowed the participants who had little to no counselling background to gain confidence and skills. They were able to practice reflective listening and motivational interviewing skills between sessions and share experiences with the group. This also built a learning community. This was important as the group will have further coaching sessions and within group debriefing sessions after the course. By the end of the training participants were exhibiting motivational interviewing skills and starting to see differences in how they approached conversations in their everyday lives as well as work.

Although the primary focus of this body of work is on behavior change conversations to address the chilly climate, it also has huge potential for helping students with motivation around study habits, or other behaviors which may be impacting on their academic success. The group found this helpful as they could practice and develop their skills on these more frequent conversations in preparation for the challenging, but less frequent disruptive or disrespectful behavior conversations. One participant in the trial has also used what they learnt to help a team with conflict. Team conflict situations are well known for being associated with issues around inclusion and harassment. Motivational interviewing looks like a promising tool for guiding teams in resolving how they interact and approach situations.

In summary, informal behavior processes are being developed to complement the well-defined formal processes. In particular, a group of 17 people from across the College of Engineering have been trained in motivational interviewing. Early signs are that motivational interviewing will be useful for behavioral change conversations both around disrespectful and disruptive behavior, and academic study behavior. Professional staff and academics with a wide range of roles were able to develop the motivational interviewing skills without prior counselling experience. This is a trial program, which we hope to eventually roll out across the campus.

References: Ferris, P. (2004, August). A preliminary typology of organisational response to allegations of workplace bullying: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. British Journal of Guidance and counselling, 32(3), 389-395. Grenny, J. (2009, November-December). Crucial conversations: The most potent force for eliminating disruptive behavior. Physician Executive, 35(6), 30-33. IPENZ Engineers NZ. (2016, June 29). Engineers subject to new Code of Ethical Conduct. Retrieved September 9, 2019, from Scoop business: Matsakis, L. (2010, February 16). Labor Board Rules Google’s Firing of James Damore Was Legal. Retrieved from Wired: Rosengren, D. B. (2018). Building motivational interviewing skills: A practitioners workbook (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.

Martin, P. A., & Britt, E. F. (2021, January), Using Motivational Interviewing to Assist Engineering Students in Finding a More Inclusive Way Forward Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day . 10.18260/1-2--36135

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