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Work in Progress: Impact of COVID-19 and the Digital Divide on the Sense of Belonging for Undergraduate Engineering Students

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2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Minneapolis, MN

Publication Date

August 23, 2022

Start Date

June 26, 2022

End Date

June 29, 2022

Conference Session

Disability, Neurodivergence, and Sense of Belonging in STEM: Equity, Culture & Social Justice in Education Division Technical Session 5

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Paper Authors

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Chartrisa Simpson Mississippi State University


Aileen Huang-Saad Northeastern University

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Dr. Huang-Saad is an Associate Professor of Bioengineering at Northeastern University and the Director of Life Sciences and Engineering Programs at Northeastern's Roux Institute in Portland, Maine. Dr. Huang-Saad is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Springer’s Biomedical Engineering Education and Division Chair for the American Society of Engineering Education’s Biomedical Engineering Division. Dr. Huang-Saad’s current research areas are entrepreneurship, innovation, and transforming higher education. She is funded by the NSF to explore the influence of the microenvironment of entrepreneurship education on minoritized populations, entrepreneurial ecosystems, and fostering graduate student professional development.

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Cheryl Gomillion University of Georgia

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Dr. Cheryl Gomillion is Assistant Professor in the School of Chemical, Materials, and Biomedical Engineering, part of the College of Engineering at the University of Georgia (UGA). She received her B.S. in Biosystems Engineering with an emphasis in Applied Biotechnology from Clemson University, and she completed both her Master’s and Ph.D. in Bioengineering also at Clemson University. Dr. Gomillion’s long-standing research interests are in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. Specifically, the work of her research group focuses on three general areas: (1) design and evaluation of biomaterials for therapeutic purposes; (2) application of materials for engineering tissue systems; and (3) advanced engineering strategies for developing in vitro models and culture systems. Dr. Gomillion is committed to the integration of her biomedical interests with education research endeavors, with a specific focus on evaluating classroom innovations for improving biomedical engineering student learning and exploring factors that facilitate success for diverse undergraduate and graduate students.

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Kasia Gallo Mississippi State University

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The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced many institutions of higher learning across the United States to pivot to online instruction immediately or close altogether. This transition highlighted many inequities in access to education as well as the sense of community on college campuses for the students. Earlier digital divide research focused mainly on physical access, identifying patterns of hardware access by different social identities such as race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Soon after, digital divide researchers began to recognize that the divide exists even when there is physical access to hardware, because the usage and the quality of usage varies (Katz & Aspden, 1996). During the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have lost access to the free, public technology resources at their college or university. These inequities in online learning and the potential impact on student success were highlighted by our team in our prior publication (Simpson, 2020). In addition to access to education, students also loss connection with their community available on college campuses.

The purpose of our study was to understand the challenges of online learning and the relationship between the Digital Divide and Sense of Belonging in underrepresented students amid a global pandemic. Using qualitative research methods, we examined the questions "How does the Digital Divide currently impact Sense of Belonging and community in students?" and "What patterns will be revealed when we investigate Sense of Belonging across different social identities?"

We conducted 20 semi-structured interviews with current and recently graduated undergraduate engineering students. We were intentional to compose a diverse group of interview participants including students from underrepresented groups, including ethnic and gender minorities as well as first-generation students. Of the 20 participants, five self-identified as men and 15 as women; nine self-identified as Black/African American, eight as White, and three as Asian. Four were first-generation students. Four participants were rising juniors, 10 were rising seniors (one 5th year senior), and five were recent alumni (December and May 2020). We conducted first and second-cycle coding data analyses to identify themes regarding the impact of COVID-19 and Digital Divide on Sense of Belonging. Preliminary results suggest the presence of themes highlighting both victories and defeats within the realms of Digital Divide and Sense of Belonging. Digital Divide was highlighted by limitations of students’ Physical Home Learning Environment, Internet Connectivity. The negative factors affecting students’ Sense of Belonging included Social Isolation; Impersonal Learning; Missing Professional Opportunities, and Individual Differences. The themes highlighting factors that increased students’ Sense of Belonging were: Student Organizations Impact; Togetherness in Pandemic; Group Work Benefits; and Connecting Through Tech. The COVID-19 pandemic provides a unique perspective for researchers to study the commonalities and differences among the experience of engineering students from diverse backgrounds. These findings will help to inform higher education administration of the impact of Sense of Belonging on college campuses and how it contributes to students’ success.

Simpson, C., & Huang-Saad, A., & Gomillion, C., & Gallo, K. (2022, August), Work in Progress: Impact of COVID-19 and the Digital Divide on the Sense of Belonging for Undergraduate Engineering Students Paper presented at 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Minneapolis, MN. 10.18260/1-2--41762

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