Undergraduate research experiences (UREs) have shown positive effects on students’ understanding of the nature of science, motivation, and academic performance. However, little is understood about how UREs affect students’ views of research and being researchers. The value of students’ identities as researchers lies in the alignment of their research skills with important aspects of their epistemic beliefs, or ways of knowing fundamental concepts in engineering and how to practice engineering. Our overarching research question is: How do undergraduate engineering students develop their identities as researchers and their ways of knowing engineering through research experiences? The outcomes of understanding how undergraduates develop researcher identities and engineering epistemic beliefs will inform the development of engineering education experiences to provide meaningful ways for students to engage, function and learn in both traditional and research-based learning environments.
This multi-institution, multi-phase project includes open-ended surveys (Phase I), semi-structured interviews (Phase II), and translation of research findings to practice (Phase III). We are employing a mixed-methods, grounded theory approach to expand existing identity and epistemic belief theories.
In Phase I, we developed and deployed a survey with close-ended and open-ended questions to characterize students’ researcher identities, perceptions of research, epistemic beliefs, and beliefs about being researchers themselves. Analysis of responses to open-ended questions (n=113) revealed themes related to student perceptions of research: it involves actively seeking new knowledge and performing investigations or experimentation. Students identified as being researchers through recognition by others, and by contributing to society. They also cited communication of research as part of being a researcher.
Survey results informed the protocol for semi-structured interviews (n=9 to date) to explore relationships between students’ epistemic cognition and identity in the context of research. Within the interviews, specific survey questions were used to facilitate discussions about how the participants see themselves as researchers. The use of these questions in the interview has led to valuable insight about measuring aspects of identity and epistemic cognition on quantitative scales. Interview transcripts were analyzed using theory-level coding to identify aspects of the underlying theories of identity and epistemic cognition. This was followed by more specific, emergent coding for aspects of the students’ beliefs, attitudes and practices. Two coders reflected on each coded passage using structured memos to justify and explain the codes applied, and make comparisons across participants. These structured memos are being used by our research team to support the integration of our quantitative and qualitative data, the move from description analysis to the construction of theoretical categories, and comparison across participants.
Outcomes for this project to date include 1) an evidence-based interview protocol, 2) details about structured memoing that can support work within grounded theory and mixed-methods analyses, and 3) value in using quantitative survey items in a semi-structured interview. These research tools can facilitate combining complex theoretical frameworks within qualitative and mixed-methods research.
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