Previously, we reported on our efforts to adapt the Learning Assistant (LA) Model (Otero, et al, 2010) at our university. In our LA program, undergraduate peer educators or Learning Assistants (LAs) have 10-12 contact hours per week with students in a first-year engineering design course while concurrently participating in a 3-credit pedagogy seminar. Our pedagogy seminar integrates foundational education topics with topics especially relevant to engineering design (e.g. design thinking, engineering epistemology, teamwork and equity).
In this paper, we discuss our efforts to support LAs in fostering equitable team dynamics and collaboration within the project-based design course. Tonso and others have shown that (a) inequities can “live” in mundane interactions such as those among students within design teams and (b) those inequities both reflect and (re)produce broader cultural patterns and narratives (e.g. Wolfe & Powell, 2009; Tonso, 1996, 2006a, 2006b; McLoughlin, 2005). With careful preparation and support, LAs could be well-positioned to notice and potentially disrupt inequitable patterns of participation within design teams. We document LAs’ resources for and challenges to noticing and responding to equity concerns in design teams.
Using a design-based research approach (Cobb, 2000; Sandoval, 2014), we aim to study the effects of our seminar and refine its design. In this paper, we ask the following questions:
How do LAs notice, diagnose, and consider responding to teamwork troubles within design teams?
In role plays, how do LAs attempt to address teamwork troubles and what emotions are elicited?
We analyze video-recordings of seminar discussions focusing specifically on three activities: (1) a discussion where LAs share successes and challenges in teaching, (2) an “exit ticket” assignment where LAs generate teamwork-focused teaching dilemmas, and (3) a role play activity where students “try on” various ways of responding to teamwork troubles. As students generated dilemmas from their classroom experiences, we found evidence of LAs noticing “overbearing students” and “quiet students” as potentially problematic for team dynamics, but were simultaneously very hesitant to consider intervening or commenting on these social dynamics. For many LAs, even the thought of intervening around social dynamics cued up emotions of fear or discomfort; there was fear of making the situation worse, of being misunderstood, or of not knowing how to act in the moment. Using tools from discourse analysis and interaction analysis (Jordan & Henderson, 1995), we identify the ways LAs notice and respond during role-play scenarios that may potentially disrupt inequitable participation within design teams. We argue that the LAs have resources for noticing inequities in teamwork, but we are not yet adequately preparing them to disrupt inequities in the ongoing work of design teams.
Many LAs expressed skepticism towards social science research, and were critical of Tonso’s claims (2006a) in ways that we did not expect. In aiming to build awareness of the ways in which engineering culture can be oppressive, we, as instructors, did not fully anticipate the degree to which this pedagogy seminar would need to contend with epistemological elitism (Riley and Nieusma, 2017) and technocratic ideologies (Slaton, 2015) within engineering.
Cobb, P. (2000). The Importance of a Situated View of Learning to the Design of Research and Instruction.” In J. Boaler (Ed.), Multiple Perspectives on Mathematics Teaching and Learning. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing.
Jordan, B., & Henderson, A. (1995). Interaction analysis: Foundations and practice. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 4(1), p. 39-103.
McLoughlin, L. A. (2005). Spotlighting: Emergent Gender Bias in Undergraduate Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(4), p. 373–381
Otero, V., Pollock, S., & Finkelstein, N. (2010). A physics department’s role in preparing physics teachers: The Colorado Learning Assistant Model. American Journal of Physics, 78(11), p. 1218-1224.
Sandoval, W. (2014). Conjecture Mapping: An Approach to Systematic Educational Design Research. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 23(1), p. 18-36,
Slaton, A. E. (2015). Meritocracy, Technocracy, Democracy: Understandings of racial and gender equity in American engineering education. In International Perspectives on Engineering Education (pp. 171-189). Springer International Publishing.
Tonso, K.L. (1996). The Impact of Cultural Norms on Women. Journal of Engineering Education, 85(3), p. 217–225.
Tonso, K. L. (2006a). Teams that Work: Campus Culture, Engineer Identity, and Social Interactions. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(1), p. 25-37.
Tonso, K. L. (2006b). Student Engineers and Engineer Identity: Campus Engineer Identities as Figured World. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 1, pp. 273-307.
Wolfe, J. and Powell, E. (2009). Biases in Interpersonal Communication: How Engineering Students Perceive Gender Typical Speech Acts in Teamwork. Journal of Engineering Education, 98(1), p. 5–16
Are you a researcher? Would you like to cite this paper?
Visit the ASEE document repository at
for more tools and easy citations.