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Engineering student identities in the undergraduate curriculum: “Sponsorship” and the social production of engineers. Kevin O’Connor, University of Rochester Lisa Perhamus, University of Rochester Derek Seward, University of Rochester Reed Stevens, University of Washington.

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Kevin O’Connor, University of Rochester Lisa Perhamus, University of Rochester


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    1. Engineering student identities in the undergraduate curriculum: “Sponsorship” and the social production of engineers Kevin O’Connor, University of Rochester Lisa Perhamus, University of Rochester Derek Seward, University of Rochester Reed Stevens, University of Washington

    2. Academic Pathways Study (APS) • Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE) • Multi-institution study: • Colorado School of Mines • Howard University • Stanford University • University of Washington

    3. Academic Pathways Study (APS) • Three-part focus: • Disciplinary knowledge • Identity • “Navigation” of institution • Study design: • Longitudinal • Ethnographic • APS now in Year 3

    4. Identity • Social theory of identity as “double sided” • Identity is experienced by self • e.g., “I am going to be an engineer”; “I am not going to be an engineer” • Identity is ascribed and maintained by others • e.g., “You are going to be an engineer”; “You are not going to be an engineer”

    5. “Intrinsic interests” and successful navigation of engineering curriculum • “The best foundation for survival and success is to have chosen one’s major because of an intrinsic interest in the discipline and/or the career fields to which it is leading” Seymour & Hewitt, Talking About Leaving

    6. “Intrinsic interests” and successful navigation of engineering curriculum But…. • Starting college, most APS students had only a very vague image of engineering as a discipline and career • Students do have intrinsic interests • Solving math problems; disassembling and reassembling mechanical objects; working with teams of people; etc. • Whether or not interests are intrinsic to engineering depends on those interests being “sponsored”

    7. Sponsorship • Sponsors: “any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold” membership • Not only “mentors” or “advisors” • Also institutions (e.g., engineering departments; organizations for underrepresented students, etc.) • Not necessarily conscious: taken-for-granted routine practices also result in sponsorship

    8. Sponsorship and the social production of engineering identities

    9. Research Context • West State University: “The U.” • Most students not directly admitted to majors • Admitted to the U. as pre-engineering • Apply to specific department by end of 2nd year • “Early admission” after 1 year is possible

    10. Comparative case study of sponsorship: “Andy” and “Bryn” • How do experienced identities intersect with routine practices of sponsorship in engineering education? • Two common points: • Neither had clear understanding of engineering upon starting college, by their own accounts • By common measures, both are successful students at the U. • e.g., GPA’s 3.24 and 3.19 respectively at end of sophomore year

    11. Andy • Math as “black and white” • Identification of math with engineering • Competitive use of academic ability to identify himself as superior to his peers • “Shift” in his view of engineering and his role in it

    12. Andy: Math as “black and white” “I like things with more solid answers, you know. Things that, there’s a right and there’s a wrong, and then I get it right, and that’s my reward, being right. As opposed to things that can be done a lot of different ways, and there’s not really a right or wrong answer.” “I like the immediate reward of math, of the black and white. It’s like, if it’s wrong, ‘OK, I’ll try it again.’ And then I get it right and it’s like, ‘Yes, I get it right!’”

    13. Andy: “Engineering is math” “Math and engineering are just closely related, like every time you hear ‘math,’ they’re like, ‘Here’s these real world problems,’ you know, to solve. And it’d always seem like these real world problems were things that would interest me, things that I could do, you know, as a future. And it just appeals to me, I don’t know exactly why. I mean it’s just- it’s where my strong suit is.”

    14. Andy: Self as superior to peers “I’ve realized I have a lot higher GPA on my math classes than I do in all my other classes. I still have a pretty good one in my engineering classes. So I’m like, ‘So if I have this great GPA in math, then maybe that’s what I should stick with.’ And then I’ll be able to say, ‘Ha, I beat all you other people!’”

    15. Andy: Struggles with engineering identity “When you get into engineering and stuff, there’s not always a right answer. You know, eventually when I get into a career and stuff, it’s not going to be like, somebody tries to do this and then I say and then they’re like, ‘Oh, I got the wrong answer. Here’s the right answer.’ That’s going to be like, more a matter of opinions, where people say, ‘Huh, maybe I should build this material.’ And I say, ‘No, maybe this material.’ You know, it’s not definite.”.

    16. Andy: Struggles with engineering identity “When you get into engineering and stuff, there’s not always a right answer. You know, eventually when I get into a career and stuff, it’s not going to be like, somebody tries to do this and then I say and then they’re like, ‘Oh, I got the wrong answer. Here’s the right answer.’ That’s going to be like, more a matter of opinions, where people say, ‘Huh, maybe I should build this material.’ And I say, ‘No, maybe this material.’ You know, it’s not definite.”.

    17. Andy: Struggles with engineering identity “It’s not as right and wrong, which is scary. It’s scary to know, you know, this is going to change. Instead of me getting it right or getting it wrong and reworking it, it’s like it might work out and it might not. You’re not going to know right away. So it’s scary, that fact that this might be, I might be nearing the end of black and white, right and wrong phase.”

    18. Bryn • Knowledge as not simply a matter of right or wrong • importance of diversity in engineering education • dissatisfaction with competitive and individualistic engineering education culture • Struggle with her identity within engineering

    19. Bryn: Knowledge is more than right and wrong • “I thirst for knowledge, I mean, just to understand how things work and not just to be able to get the right answer. Cause I mean the answer’s great, but what is an answer to you if you don’t know the meaning behind it? I think that’s interesting to be able to dig deeper into the knowledge, … to have that knowledge and be able to talk to people about it, and really, cause I think that other people can contribute too.”

    20. Bryn: Importance of diversity • “I think that um, just diversifying the field of engineering is just so good, because everyone has these great experiences that contribute to the work. And not just someone’s education, cause you and I might have the same education, but we might take it differently and be able to solve problems differently, and if we both work together, we might get this awesome answer versus you working on it and me working on it. …

    21. Bryn: Importance of diversity “So having minorities in it, they’re gonna come from a completely different background, and have these different experiences and you won’t- we won’t just have white males answering everything, we’ll have women and people of color in there that’ll have these different experiences, so then we’ll have a, just this array of ideas.”

    22. Bryn: Dissatisfaction with engineering education culture “It just seemed like there was just a different frame of mind and the whole ‘me succeeding,’ like ‘me, me, me,’ and really not wanting to help people, and I didn’t understand that, because I really, if I know something, I’m gonna help you figure it out, and I would hope that if I didn’t know something, it would be the same way.”

    23. Bryn: Struggles with engineering identity “I've questioned if I was for engineering or if engineering was for me. I'm a very people person, and a lot of the stuff that I've been exposed to in engineering has been behind the desk. Not as much exposure with um people. And I know that I need to be working with people. … I know that that's a gift that I've been given, and to deny that would not be good. And I don't know where engineering would fit into that. And so I'm still looking at that.  But the experiences I've had that's really been something that has turned me off.”

    24. Discussion • Specific “intrinsic interests” (in e.g., math problems, diversification of knowledge through dialog, etc.) • are not necessarily intrinsic to engineering • become identified as “engineering interests” by sponsors • Andy finds sponsorship for his interests inside the discipline • His struggles with an engineering identity take place as an insider • Bryn has not found sponsorship for her interests inside the discipline • Her struggles with an engineering identity take place as an outsider

    25. Discussion • Sponsorship is not a neutral process • Both “matches” and “mismatches” between interests and disciplines are actively produced by students and disciplinary sponsors • Disciplines make decisions about what kinds of identities fit • These are also decisions about the identity of the discipline