At Georgia Tech’s (GT) Biomedical Engineering Department (BMED), team work is central to the student experience. Team work is valued as an exercise in collaboration and as a replication of what the students will encounter in the work place. Because effective teamwork requires a recognition of the value of diversity among team members, we question how and if students acknowledge and actively capitalize on the diversity their teammates might offer. To develop preliminary answers to such questions, we conducted a simple open-ended, end-of-course survey in our sophomore level problem-based learning class (PBL).
BMED 2250: Problems in Biomedical Engineering is both a highly-technical and highly cooperative team-focused class. Students are required to delve head-first into an ill-defined, ill-structured, authentic biomedical engineering design problem, define it, model the proposed solution conceptually and mathematically, build a proof-of concept with microcontrollers and arduinos, and finally conduct an experiment with their built model to test and validate their conceptual/math model. This intense but highly scaffolded learning experience provides the ideal environment to examine how students engage in the team experience and whether they place value on the diversity of their group members and their diverse contributions to the team’s effectiveness. BMED 2250 students are generally first or second semester sophomores. At the undergraduate level, GT’s BMED is overrepresented with women (55%) and has moderate URM representation (7.3% black, 9.3% latinx, 28.2% Asian, 4.7% 2 or more, and 4.7% unknown,); nationally, it surpasses other engineering departments in gendered diversity and offers competitive racial and ethnic diversity.
At the final exam, BMED 2250 students enrolled during the 2017-18 academic year were asked to “List two to three words that best describe your team and explain why they are representative.” Responses were aggregated to calculate the frequency of each submitted word. Researchers then used descriptive coding on students’ explanations of their submitted words to organize the words into larger categories and themes. For this proposal, we focus on one of the largest codes: diverse. The students’ descriptions that were coded into “diverse” go against the conventional grain of defining diversity in terms of the various identities people hold or that tend to be the focus of STEM diversity initiatives nationally. Instead, students focused largely on intellectual contributions, skill sets, and personal approach to work when describing a “diverse” team. They rarely described race, ethnicity, or cultural background. Interestingly, gender was never mentioned.
The results raise some interesting questions. Is it possible that students have internalized the normality of BMED’s racial, ethic, gender, and cultural diversity? Or is it that rather than embracing this diversity to enhance their team work, they ignore it to the detriment of individual members and their team? Or is the topic of diversity and inclusion so charged that students are not comfortable or do not have the words to articulate how surface diversity (race, gender, disability, ethnicity etc.) impacted their team? More investigation is needed to determine how engineering students define diversity in school and work environments. Implications beyond GT’s BMED extend to conventional methods for educating and preparing Generation Z students for the modern work force that embraces diversity. Traditional pedagogical approaches to diversity education assume that students have not been exposed to diverse others and do not readily appreciate and embrace diversity among their peers. When educators begin from the assumption that interacting with diverse others is new or uncomfortable for students, the default orientation is to use what may prove to be antiquated methods on teaching interaction and diversity to today’s college students. Our data is evidence that supports a new starting point for diversity education within engineering classes. If engineering students spontaneously and unprompted recognize cognitive and intellectual diversity as an asset, can we build on this in advancing our goal of creating truly inclusive environments where all team members feel connected and respected for all that they bring, included and excluded identities, to the group? We look forward to a discussion on this topic.
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