Engineering culture often supports limited ways of thinking and being an engineer. The result of this culture is that only particular types of students are recognized as an engineer, and the process of educating engineers homogenizes rather than diversifies the students’ skills and potential for innovation. This process of homogenization develops engineering graduates that are more alike in their problem-solving approaches, ways of thinking, and identities as engineers than as unique innovators. Students who do not conform to this mold of “being an engineer” are often alienated from engineering, do not develop engineering identities, and leave engineering, which reduces the much needed human potential for innovation. This project responds to these challenges by characterizing and empirically understanding how to support innovative mindsets and engineering identity. These underlying attitudes, beliefs, and mindsets are termed latent diversity, which are attributes that are present as potential sources for innovation but are not visible or actualized. The overall project answers three research questions (RQs): 1) What kinds of diversity of thought, innovation mindsets, and attitudes are present in engineering students?; 2) How do undergraduate students with latent diversity form engineering identities within an engineering community of practice over time?; and 3) What support, both inside and outside of the classroom, can be provided to promote inclusion of students with latent diversity in engineering? The outcomes of this work will help create more inclusive college classrooms that accept a wider set of students and produce engineers who can adopt various perspectives for innovative problem solutions.
In the past year, we have begun the second phase of our research to administer a national survey instrument to characterize latent diversity of first-year engineering students (RQ1). We administered 3,855 paper-based surveys at 32 ABET-accredited institutions to understand students’ underlying attitudes mindsets, and beliefs. These surveys were digitized and cleaned of indiscriminate responses using attention check questions within the survey instrument for a total of 3,711 students’ responses. We used Topological Data Analysis (TDA) to understand the data structure of the students’ responses. TDA provides a “map” of connected data progressions rather than attempting to break datasets into distinct (or probabilistic) groups. We found six distinct data progressions, A-F, as well as a sparse group of students whose responses were not similar to the majority. We used these progressions to identify and recruit students who are attitudinally and demographically diverse for phase three (RQ2). This executive summary will provide a description of the results of our TDA. Our future work focuses on recruiting students to participate in longitudinal interviews and journaling activities to understand how latent diversity informs students’ identity trajectories and development throughout their engineering education. Our findings-to-date show a wide range of latent diversity among students entering engineering programs. This work highlights the importance of identifying alternative ways students can be recognized as an engineer and form enduring engineering identity. More importantly, this research begins to provide practical findings to help educators support diverse mindsets in engineering classrooms.
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