This interdisciplinary, interinstitutional research initiation project is motivated by the need to develop practical strategies for broadening the participation of African American students in engineering. The project’s central objective is to conduct a comparative study of the factors affecting the success and pathways to engineering careers of African American students at the University of Toledo (a Predominantly White Institution (PWI) and Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (a Historically Black University) in order to gain insight into the factors affecting the social and academic well-being of students at PWIs and HBCUs from a psychological and anthropological perspective. For students from underrepresented groups in STEM at both HBCUs and PWIs, it is generally recognized that social capital in the form of familial, peer and mentor support is critical to persistence in their major field of study. However, the role that embedded networks within student groups in general and minority engineering affinity groups in particular play in engineering students’ identity formation and academic success is not well understood. It is also not clear how other factors including institutional support and the attitudes and beliefs of faculty and staff toward underrepresented minority students affect the ability of these students to integrate into the social and academic systems at their institutions and how these factors influence the formation and development of their identities as engineers.
Here we report on the role of membership in organizations for underrepresented minority engineering students such as the NSBE) in contributing to the interlinking of personal and professional identities, and to the career pathways of African American students enrolled in PWI and HBCU, respectively. We draw on intergroup contact hypothesis and Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital to examine 1) the role of membership to professional engineering student organizations in enabling African American students to develop their engineering identity as an integral part of their black identity; and 2) the interactive effect of institutional characteristics and participation in minority engineering organizations on students' Black engineering identity. We draw upon 15 focus group interviews (7 in HBCU and 8 in PWI), with approximately 7 to 10 students per focus group to conduct a comparative qualitative analysis of NSBE and non-NSBE students’ responses to questions related to their sense of belonging to the institutions and profession, engineering identity, black identity, support mechanisms, access to opportunities based on their membership to NSBE. Initial analysis of focus group interviews (using NVivo 11) with participants from the HBCU institution indicate that attending an HBCU institution and membership in organizations such as NSBE contribute to a strong black engineering identity among African American students. Further analyses of interviews with participants from the PWI institution will be important in uncovering the relative role of organizations such as NSBE in PWI and HBCU institutions in supporting the development of strong professional engineering identity among African American students.
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