Survey studies find benefits for undergraduate students who participate in science and engineering research, especially for students from underrepresented groups. But scholars know little about what actually happens during students’ research experiences that creates these desirable outcomes. We hypothesize that a crucial factor in students’ learning and development of engineering identity is how they are socialized into a research community. Our study draws on theories from the fields of education and science and technology studies, such as expertise, identity formation, and situated learning in communities of practice. To investigate learning in labs, we conducted participant observation in two engineering laboratories in a medium-sized public research university for one academic year, which included attending meetings, interviewing lab members, and shadowing undergraduates. This paper presents four emerging themes from our analyses of the ethnographic data. First, engineers and students talk about undergraduate research with regards to a few undefined concepts that we suggest may be problematic. For example, PIs expect students to demonstrate “interest” in research. We suspect that PIs’ perceptions of students could unintentionally exclude students from underrepresented
groups. Second, the two labs talk about failure in different ways, namely as heroic and brave vs. as tragic and deserving of sympathy, which we suggest may be gendered. Gendered discourse styles may influence women’s sense of belonging in engineering. Third, we used a new methodology to investigate undergraduates’ conceptions of their expertise by asking them to
narrate their thoughts as they filled out a T-shaped diagram. Their ideas challenge the theory of T-shaped expertise by suggesting that it does not account for how a student’s expertise changes with time and experience. Fourth, lab members believe that undergraduates primarily provide labor, but we documented a variety of additional contributions. For example, undergraduates create opportunities for other lab members to learn, such as by asking questions that challenge others’ assumptions. Thus, undergraduates are active participants in the construction of both knowledge and community in engineering labs.
Are you a researcher? Would you like to cite this paper?
Visit the ASEE document repository at
for more tools and easy citations.