June 24, 2017
June 24, 2017
June 28, 2017
Pre-College Engineering Education Division
This work is motivated by a larger research study that looks at the experiences of African American students within a College of Engineering at a major Mid-West University. While this larger study will present the perspectives of these students currently enrolled in their engineering discipline, a missing piece of this project revolves around how these students perceived of engineering before they arrived to campus. Thus, the goal of this work is to investigate if and how student perceptions of a specific engineering discipline – in this case mechanical engineering – varies across ethnic or gender demographics among students who have not yet been exposed to engineering experiences. To investigate this question, our research team collaborated with two university sponsored summer programs that taught engineering to young students. Though the American Association of Mechanical Engineers defines the function of Mechanical Engineers to be creating mechanical systems “concerned with the principles of force, energy and motion, mechanical engineers use their knowledge of design, manufacture, and operational processes to advance the world around us,” our initial hypothesis was that students would not have such a worldly and social view of what mechanical engineers do (Cornerstone, n.d.). Even further, we hypothesized that there may be some difference in these perceptions based on their social demographic. To investigate this hypothesis, our research team collaborated with two university sponsored summer programs that taught engineering to young students. Before participating in these summer programs, 85 students were interviewed and asked “What do you think mechanical engineers do?” Participant responses and organized by the demographic data of the students. Student responses fell into one of the following six categories: (1) Mechanical/Moving Things, (2) Computers/Electrical Technology, (3) Civil Engineering, (4) Manufacturing/Building, (5) "More than Engineering," and (6) I Don’t know. Results indicate that across races and genders, students interviewed primarily associate mechanical engineering with mechanical/Moving things and secondarily with manufacturing/building. There are, however, some interesting trends when you investigate the perception trends more closely. For example, students who identified as American Indian were more likely than other ethnic groups to discuss mechanical engineering as “more than engineering,” citing things like “improving/enhancing materials” as functions of a mechanical engineer. Given the relatively small sample size of each race, we are careful to not generalize how an entire ethnic or gender group may perceive mechanical engineering. Instead, we point to some possible areas of investigation for researchers to explore. It may be significant that women were more likely to admit to not knowing and that the only men to do so were multiracial, Hispanic or African American. Intersectionality of race and gender, though not quantitatively explored in this work, may be another area of exploration as it relates to student perceptions. The results of this study suggest that differing demographic groups do in fact have different perceptions of mechanical engineering but that these perceptions all tend to favor the idea of mechanical engineers and designers of mechanical and moving things. Such a finding leaves the opportunity for designers of summer and university level engineering programs/departments to raise awareness about other facets of mechanical engineering.
Beebe, C. (2017, June), Youth Perceptions of Mechanical Engineering by Race and Gender Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. https://peer.asee.org/29198
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