Identity influences who people think they are, what they think they can do and be, and where and with whom they think they belong. In education, identity is a determining factor in one pursuing, persisting, and persevering in a field. In engineering, it has been shown to be an important factor in attracting and retaining underrepresented minorities. Identity development is a social process realized through culture -- through the interactions of students, faculty, and industry, through participation in engineering-related activities, and through reinforcement of shared similarities. This goal of this project is to develop a mechanical engineering program where students and faculty are immersed in a culture of doing engineering with industry engineers that in turn fosters an identity of being an engineer. Cultivating a culture of doing engineering can result in graduates who not only are prepared technically and professionally with a practical, realistic understanding of what it is to be an engineer, but also who identify with and are committed to the engineering profession.
This culture of “engineering with engineers” is created through changes in four areas: a shared department vision, faculty, curriculum, and supportive policies. In each, a variety of actions create the cultural change, address barriers to change, and ensure sustainability. A cross-cutting theme unifying these changes is a significant connection to industry. Some of the changes include faculty immersion in industry, makeathons that connect industry professionals with students, and changes in how the department prioritizes teaching, student research, industry connections, and faculty mentoring.
During this project, changes to the program and to student and faculty identities are monitored through interviews, surveys, and many other tools. Results of the study will lead to a clearer understanding of the changes that promote engineering identities, particularly in women, and how such identities affect students’ sense of belonging in a program and their persistence in the major. The study will also lead to a better understanding of the factors that influence faculty identity, and how these richer identities affect how they view their roles and their students.
More importantly, understanding how identities affect students' engagement, performance, and persistence could transform how we teach STEM in K-16. Such knowledge will allow educators to target activities that produce the strongest effect on identity and be mindful of those that negatively impact identity. Finally, a focus on identity encourages reflection and a larger discussion about how students see themselves, their education, and their profession, and how these views uniquely affect underrepresented or marginalized students. This conversation can lead to a better understanding of how best to create an inclusive educational system.
This project was funded by the Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) IUSE/PFE: RED grant through NSF.
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