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What You Need to Succeed: Examining Culture and Capital in Biomedical Engineering Undergraduate Education

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

June 19, 2019

Conference Session

Liberal Education Division Technical Session Session 12

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Danielle Corple Purdue University

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Danielle Corple received her Ph.D. from the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University. This fall, she will be an assistant professor at Wheaton College in Illinois. She studies organizational communication, diversity and inclusion, ethics, and social change.

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Carla B. Zoltowski Purdue University-Main Campus, West Lafayette (College of Engineering)

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Carla B. Zoltowski is an assistant professor of engineering practice in the Schools of Electrical and Computer Engineering and (by courtesy) Engineering Education and Director of the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) Program at Purdue University. She holds a B.S.E.E., M.S.E.E., and Ph.D. in Engineering Education, all from Purdue. Prior to this she was Co-Director of the EPICS Program at Purdue where she was responsible for developing curriculum and assessment tools and overseeing the research efforts within EPICS. Her research interests include the professional formation of engineers, diversity, inclusion, and equity in engineering, human-centered design, engineering ethics, and leadership.

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Sean Eddington Purdue University

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Sean Eddington (Ph.D., Purdue University) will be an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Kansas State University beginning Fall 2019. Sean’s primary research interests exist at the intersections of organizational communication, new media, gender, and organizing. Within engineering contexts, Sean has examined career issues within the engineering discipline regarding (1) new faculty experiences throughout their on-boarding and (2) educational cultures that impact the professional formation of engineers, which was funded by the National Science Foundation. Both projects have been published in the Proceedings of the American Society of Engineering Education. He has also served as a series editor, contributed to trade publications, and facilitated workshops related to higher education administrators’ work experiences. Sean is also actively engaged within mentoring activities, and has served as an advisor to multiple student leadership organizations including Beta Theta Pi, which he has received both campus and international awards for his service and mentoring to the Purdue chapter.

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Andrew O. Brightman Purdue University at West Lafayette (COE)

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Andrew O. Brightman serves as Assistant Head for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Engineering Practice in the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering. His research background is in cellular biochemistry, tissue engineering, and engineering ethi

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Patrice Marie Buzzanell University of South Florida Orcid 16x16

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Patrice M. Buzzanell is Distinguished University Professor and immediate past Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of South Florida and Endowed Visiting Professor for the School of Media and Design at Shanghai Jiaotong University. Fellow and Past President of the International Communication Association (ICA), she also is a Distinguished Scholar for the National Communication Association (NCA), Past President of the Council of Communication Associations, and Past President and Wise Woman of the Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender. She has received career achievement awards from ICA, NCA, the Central States Communication Association, and Purdue University where she was a Distinguished University Professor in communication and engineering education (by courtesy) and Endowed Chair and Director of the Susan Bulkeley Butler Center for Leadership Excellence. Her primary research areas are organizational communication, career, work-life, resilience, feminist/gender, and design. Her grants have focused on ethics, institutional transformation, and diversity-equity-inclusion-belongingness in the professional formation of engineers.

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Despite increased efforts to diversify the field of engineering, women and minorities remain underrepresented in the profession. Studies of engineering culture highlight how the persistence of women and minorities is linked to norms and assumptions of engineering cultures (e.g., Fouad et al. 2016, Singh et al., 2018). For example, some engineering cultures have been characterized as masculine, leading women to feel that they must become ‘one of the guys’ to fit in and be successful (e.g., Faulkner, 2009). In the U.S., engineering cultures are also predominantly white, which can make people of color feel unwelcome or isolated (Long & Mejia, 2016). When individuals feel unwelcome in engineering cultures, they are likely to leave. Thus, engineering culture plays an important role in shaping who participates and persists in engineering education and practice.

Likewise, disciplinary cultures in engineering education also carry assumptions about what resources students should possess and utilize throughout their professional development. For example, educational cultures may assume students possess certain forms of ‘academic capital,’ such as rigorous training in STEM subjects prior to college. They might also assume students possess ‘navigational capital,’ or the ability to locate and access resources in the university system. However, these cultural assumptions have implications for the diversity and inclusivity of educational environments, as they shape what kinds of students are likely to succeed. For instance, first generation college (FGC) students may not possess the same navigational capital as continuing generation students (Long & Mejia, 2016). Under-represented minority (URM) students often receive less pre-college training in STEM than their white counterparts (MacPhee et al., 2013). However, FGC and URM students possess many forms of capital that often are unrecognized by education systems (i.e. linguistic capital, or the ability to speak in multiple languages or styles) (Yosso, 2005; Dika & Martin 2018). Educational cultures that assume everyone possesses the same kinds of capital (i.e. that of white, American, high SES, and continuing generation students) construct barriers for students from diverse backgrounds. Thus, we propose that examining culture is essential for understanding the underlying assumptions and beliefs that give rise to the challenging issues surrounding the lack of diversity and inclusion in engineering.

This case study examines the culture of a biomedical engineering (BME) program at a large Midwestern university and its underlying assumptions regarding what sources of cultural and social capital undergraduate students need to be successful. Eighteen BME students were interviewed, and the data were thematically analyzed by the first author. By tracing when and how students draw upon these forms of capital during their professional development, we discuss the implications for students from diverse backgrounds, particularly FGC and URM students.


N.A. Fouad, R. Singh, K. Cappaert, W.H. Chang, and M. Wan, “Comparison of women engineers who persist in or depart from engineering,” Journal of Vocational Behavior, vol. 92, pp. 79-93, 2016.

R. Singh, Y. Zhang, M. Wan, and N.A. Fouad, “Why do women engineers leave the engineering profession? The roles of work–family conflict, occupational commitment, and perceived organizational support,” Human Resource Management, vol. 57, no. 4, pp. 901-914, 2018.

W. Faulkner, “Doing gender in engineering workplace cultures: II Gender in/authenticity and the in/visibility paradox,” Engineering Studies, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 169-189, 2009.

L.L. Long and J.A. Mejia, “Conversations about diversity: Institutional barriers for underrepresented engineering students,” Journal of Engineering Education, vol. 105, no. 2, pp. 211-218, 2016.

D. MacPhee, S. Farro and S. S. Canetto, “Academic self-efficacy and performance of underrepresented STEM majors: Gender, ethnic, and social class patterns,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 347-369, 2013.

T.J. Yosso, “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth,” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 69-91, March 2005.

S.L. Dika and J.P. Martin, “Bridge to persistence: Interactions with educators as social capital for Latina/o engineering majors,” Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, vol. 17, no. 3, pp. 202-215.

Corple, D., & Zoltowski, C. B., & Eddington, S., & Brightman, A. O., & Buzzanell, P. M. (2019, June), What You Need to Succeed: Examining Culture and Capital in Biomedical Engineering Undergraduate Education Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33556

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