This paper reports on the process and findings of an action research project that engaged a diverse group of high school youth who were participants in an engineering design fellowship at a major urban science center. Participants were trained in action research techniques, explored the “engineering habits of mind” (National Research Council’s Committee on Understanding and Improving K-12 Engineering Education in the U.S., 2009) as a framework for understanding their own work with visitors to the science center, and investigated how informal learning experiences can serve as pathways toward engineering for young people from under-represented backgrounds.
This project was designed to provide insight into the programmatic structures and practices that engage students from under-represented backgrounds with the perspectives and ways of thinking, working, teaching and learning that are distinctive to the engineering professions. A key finding of young people's action research was that they were already skilled in many of the social and communicative practices that have been shown to be characteristic of innovative and inclusive engineering programs, through their earlier participation in the science center’s broader youth development program. However, their fellowship experience allowed them to discover the importance of those social and communicative skills to innovative and effective engineering practice. This deepened their understanding of the problem-solving processes of engineering and how engineering can contribute to addressing broad social challenges, and shifted them away from earlier conceptions of engineering as a primarily technical field of study.
Engineering education research is urgently in need of a deeper understanding of how youth from non-white, immigrant backgrounds, particularly females, experience programmatic efforts to invite and engage them in the practices of learning and teaching others about engineering. The difficulties encountered by non-dominant youth in this field are broadly acknowledged, but program designers and educators continue to struggle to understand how to address these challenges in ways that are meaningful to their target audience. Findings from this project will provide detailed insight into how these youth are negotiating the process of building strong connections between their own cultural identities and their potential induction into a new identity as a student of engineering.
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