Traditionally, engineering culture has limited rather than fostered diversity in engineering. To address this persistent issue, we examine how diverse students identify with engineering and navigate the culture of engineering. We define diversity not by making a priori categorizations according to traditional demographic information (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), but instead by investigating the variation in students’ attitudinal profiles on a host of affective measures. Using these measures, we develop an identification of large, “normative” groups of engineers as well as “non-normative” students who emerge as having distinct attitudinal profiles. This mixed methods study investigates the intersectionality of engineering students' personal identities to understand: How do non-normative groups in engineering form an engineering identity and navigate a culture dominated by limited diversity?
The focus of this paper is on the first phase this project, in which students' identities, motivation, psychological traits, perceived supports and barriers to engineering, and other background information is being quantitatively assessed. Pilot survey data were collected from participants enrolled in second semester first-year engineering programs across three institutions (n=374). We used topological data analysis (TDA) to create normative and non-normative attitudinal profiles of respondents. As a relatively new and powerful set of analytic methods, TDA clusters variegated data to understand an underlying structure, or topology, which emerges from the data. Our preliminary results show definite patterns which we then break down according to students' self-identified demographics. Additionally, a subset of participants who completed our quantitative instrument were interviewed about their experiences in and identification with engineering (n=7). Initial qualitative data analysis indicate that students who reside at intersectional boundaries of diversity have difficulty finding similar role models in engineering and often find themselves expending additional effort when compared to their peers to establish themselves in both engineering and non-engineering communities. Results of this quantitative and qualitative work were used to further refine the quantitative instrument that is to be used in subsequent phases of the project.
Addressing student perceptions that they do not fit in engineering can begin to staunch the exodus of talented individuals from engineering majors. The use of practical methods in this study to understand students' identities as they relate to engineering can be used to attract more students into engineering. An increase in the number of students in engineering will help initiate a much-needed shift toward a more innovative approaches to engineering solutions than may be develop by traditional “normative” groups. We are refining our quantitative instrument to identify and measure engineering students' attitudinal profiles and the underlying analytic techniques. The next phases of the study will assess the target population of engineering students across four institutions in a large-scale quantitative analysis of students’ attitudinal profiles (n ~ 2000). Once student clusters are established, exemplar students from each will be longitudinally tracked via qualitative interviews to elucidate the ways in which students navigate engineering cultures.
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