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Work in Progress: Structured Teamwork for Learning Equity in First-year Engineering Design

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

First-year Programs: Teams and Teamwork

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Emma Tevaarwerk DeCosta Northwestern University

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Dr. Tevaarwerk DeCosta works as a dedicated first year adviser at the McCormick School of Engineering, where she advises incoming first year students and teaches courses in freshmen design and materials science.

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Kathleen Carmichael Northwestern University


Lisa M. Davidson Northwestern University

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Senior Assessment Associate, Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching

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Ordel Brown Northwestern University

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Dr. Ordel Brown is an instructional professor at Northwestern University in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, where she currently teaches first-year engineering and global engineering design courses. Her research interests in engineering education include first-year engineering experience enhancement strategies, retention of underrepresented groups in engineering, inclusion and learning equity in engineering design, and application of critical theory in engineering design.

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Elise Gruneisen Northwestern University

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Work in Progress: Structured Teamwork for Learning Equity in First-Year Engineering Design

This abstract is for a work in progress paper that investigates the impact of a pedagogical intervention designed to promote equity of learning opportunities for historically underrepresented students in first-year engineering programs. Engineering programs have long struggled to create inclusive and equitable learning environments and many engineering administrators remain skeptical of the long-term benefits of such initiatives. Much work has been spearheaded by administrative groups such as departments of Diversity & Inclusion who typically seek to promote equity through changes to broader institutional culture. Student classroom experiences, however, remain relatively neglected and thus such efforts have rarely inspired STEM faculty buy-in. Consequently students from historically underrepresented groups, especially those students perceived to have lower social capital than their peers, may still face substantial disparities in their classroom experiences, disparities that may include exclusion from perceived high-profile team roles.

A flagship first-year engineering design course at a medium-sized, private university in the Midwest provided a unique opportunity to address many of these disparities. The course currently utilizes established best practices to promote student success by providing a foundation in essential soft skills such as communication, how to grapple with complex problems, and the ability to work in teams. Students are expected to develop these skills through repeated and meaningful experiences working with diverse groups of peers. Faculty and student feedback, however, suggest that teams may allocate work among team members in ways that inhibit those students who identify with historically underrepresented groups from achieving the full range of course learning objectives when compared to those from more privileged backgrounds.

To improve equity of learning opportunity for all students, the course was modified to include a structured teamwork approach which identifies four key team tasks—primary research, secondary research, training building and testing, and project management—and aligns them with roles assigned to each team member. Five 16-student experimental sections used a syllabus structured such that each student on a team rotated through and was exposed to each of the four roles, along with the planning, doing and documentation associated with it. In the five control sections, in contrast, the teams were left to allocate work for themselves. The study used indirect measures of students’ learning (i.e., survey items that asked students to rate their abilities relative to inclusive team-based and course learning outcomes) rather than direct measures (e.g., work produced by students evaluated against criteria that reflect the learning outcomes) to assess the impact of the intervention.

Early results indicate that teams in experimental sections showed higher team focus on interpersonal areas such as offering and receiving feedback, discussing ideas, making decisions, and justifying evidence-based design decisions when compared with teams from the control section, who showed more growth in areas related to determining how much individual teammates had contributed to the final design. These early results are particularly encouraging given current research substantiating the relationship between collaborative learning and undergraduate success.

DeCosta, E. T., & Carmichael, K., & Davidson, L. M., & Brown, O., & Gruneisen, E. (2020, June), Work in Progress: Structured Teamwork for Learning Equity in First-year Engineering Design Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--35682

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