keywords: Undergraduate, LGBTQIA+, Engineering,
STEM students from underrepresented populations often report waning interest in STEM careers because STEM academic content fails to engage their identities or their passions. Can engineering educators foster a more inclusive and supportive learning environment that helps students from these populations develop their engineering skills by assigning them design projects that allow them to engage both their interests and their identities simultaneously? Senior-year design projects can and often do allow for engagement of interests, but risk alienating these groups by not encouraging them to focus on topics that affect their specific communities directly, and, as senior year projects, can be too late in coming to these students who already feel alienated from the process as a whole.
Using two case studies, this paper offers possible solutions to this challenge, focusing specifically on LGBTQ+ engineering students. We report on the experiences and outcomes of a junior-year interdisciplinary undergraduate student project required of all STEM majors that demonstrate how maximum autonomy in framing a research problem can contribute to student motivation while also prompting dramatic institutional change. We report on two students, each from a different student research team at a mid-sized STEM institution with the majority of students being engineering majors. In this case, the students framed their own problem ¬—lack of inclusion and support for transgender and nonbinary students at their institution—developed their own research design, and proposed solutions that have since been adopted by the institution.
Our data include multiple interviews with two students on separate project teams and multiple interviews with their faculty project advisor. We provide evidence that the students themselves changed as a result of their research, becoming more confident in their abilities and more knowledgeable about the career possibilities open to them that would involve their entire selves: embodied, intellectual, and moral.
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