Engineering Equity
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[Slide 1] Hi, I’m Ashley Rea, an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric & Composition at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, where I teach technical communication and direct the university’s Writing & Design Lab. Today I’ll be sharing findings from an ongoing IRB-approved study entitled “Engineering Equity: Fostering Inclusive Education at ERAU-Prescott.” [Slide 2] You can find an accessibility copy of the presentation and slides at the following URL and QR code. [Slide 3] In this presentation, I’ll introduce the study’s goals and design, describe its exigence and theoretical framework, and share some preliminary findings and future directions. 


[Slide 4] Our study considers the communication challenges experienced by women and gender-diverse students currently enrolled in first and second-year engineering courses. [Slide 5] As faculty working within technical communication and engineering, our research team seeks ways to (1) understand where communication failures are occurring in these engineering courses, particularly when those breakdowns lead to moments of marginalization for women, gender-diverse, racially minoritized, and/or first generation students; and (2) to plan and deploy targeted interventions to foster more inclusive and equitable educational environments. 


[Slide 6] In the first phase of this multi-year study, we decided to conduct qualitative semi-structured interviews with students and faculty. Our interviews use a critical incident approach. In order to magnify research participants' agency (Agboka, 2020), we are also practicing member-checking and excitingly, many student participants have expressed interest in joining the research team as the project develops further! In subsequent phases of research, we will supplement our interview data with classroom observations and then pilot infrastructural classroom interventions and curriculum-wide revisions. 


[Slide 7] We developed this study to address perceived issues in the local context, attitude challenges, and systemic problems documented in scholarly literature. First, introductory engineering courses are widely understood by ERAU students to function as a gatekeeping mechanism for would-be future engineers. As Lizzy, a first year aerospace engineering student and study participant, described, “We do have something called the gauntlet for a reason. [Engineering] is not for everyone.” Anecdotal data from faculty and the DFWI (drop, fail, withdrawal, and incomplete) rates for these courses also suggest unequal learning outcomes for students correlated with positionality. 


When students do experience communication challenges, these are often discounted. In a particularly evocative example, Beddoes and Panther found that some faculty participants “did not think it was a problem if women encounter gender biases in engineering education because that is preparing them for the workplace” (p.336). 


[Slide 8] Our study uses two key theoretical frameworks, intersectional feminism and infrastructural rhetoric, to better understand the localized and systemic challenges facing marginalized and minoritized students at Embry-Riddle. Intersectional feminism leads us to understand identity and positionality as multi-faceted, influenced by interlocking systems of oppression that affect marginalized individuals in a variety of ways dependent on their positionality. It also leads us to ask whose voices we are centering in our research and demands reflexivity on the part of our research team. [Slide 9] We decided to use infrastructural rhetoric as a lens to guide our study to hopefully give us a sense of where problems are occurring and what might we do to intervene.


[Slide 10] Today I’ll share anecdotes from three research participants: Mercedes, Lizzy, and Raina. Mercedes is a first-year aerospace engineering major who identifies as a Mixed (African American and Caucasian) woman. Lizzy is a first-year aerospace engineering major who identifies as a white woman and as a person with a disability. Finally, Raina is a first-year mechanical engineering major who identifies as Hispanic and female and nonbinary. All three participants described identity-related communication challenges and moments of marginalization at different points in the rhetorical infrastructure. 


[Slide 11] For Mercedes, the social, authority, and physical components of the rhetorical infrastructure proved most salient to her experience of marginalization. She described a situation where her ideas and contributions were consistently ignored by the two male engineering students on her team. In her team of four, one male student self-selected as the team lead, with the other male student taking up the design role. The team lead directed Mercedes to take up the “notetaker role” even though she had an equal amount of previous engineering design experience. The final member of the team, another female student, decided to take on the coding position. 


Mercedes explained how the team lead’s communication strategies, including a practice of saying, “I hear you, but I’m not going to listen to your idea,” functioned to effectively exclude her from the design process. Only when the first ideas failed and Mercedes’ original suggestions were echoed (without attribution) by the second male student did the team lead try them. This social dynamic led to frustration on the part of the female students–the coding student would frequently get discouraged and leave the class early, and when Mercedes used profanity while troubleshooting a problem with the code, she was chastised by her teammates that “Women shouldn’t cuss.” However, despite drafting a clear written process for negotiating change and authority, this process was ignored when the students became stressed about the assignment deadlines.


Unfortunately, Mercedes felt that she couldn’t appeal to the professor’s authority because she felt he wasn’t approachable. She contrasted her engineering professor’s lack of knowledge of student names and no posted office hours with her communication professor’s daily introduction questions and individual student conferences. Without the professor intentionally cultivating a perception of approachability, students like Mercedes felt as though their concerns would not be heard. Finally, the physical layout of the classroom meant that only two students could be working with the material components of their robot at a time, while the other two used computers in the row ahead.   


[Slide 12] Lizzy’s interview revealed challenges with the social component of the infrastructural rhetoric, in addition to issues with authority and operational infrastructures. Lizzy’s team was composed of all women, but she described a perception that not all women could succeed. This led to a contested sense of authority between two team members vying for the lead position. Operational challenges with the amount of time in class before their 3 hour lab also had a significant impact on the team’s attitudes. 


[Slide 13] Raina instead described her central challenge in the course as a function of the authority infrastructure. In particular, she explained how her instructor, Michael, would consistently adopt a different tone and communication style with her team. Raina continued, “Because we’re a group of all women, he expects us to not know how to do things, so when we don’t know how to do things, it’s like “of course you don’t know.”” While quick to say that she didn’t think it was “malice” on the part of the instructor, rather implicit bias, Raina and her team’s experience with her instructor’s lowered expectations diminished their interest in participating in the class. Raina instead strategically relied on aspects of the social infrastructure to provide validation for her experiences, helping her feel less alone.

[Slide 14] Each participant’s experiences contribute to a fuller sense of the challenges facing gendered and/or racially-minoritized students in introductory engineering courses. Interestingly, the authority and social infrastructures proved to be the most important for the three participants, reflecting existing scholarship about the importance of community, mentorship, and student dispositions of confidence in engineering education. The physical and operational infrastructures also discouraged active participation by all students, while challenges with the economic infrastructure didn’t surface in these interviews.  


[Slide 15] Moving forward, we plan to continue to partner with students to better understand the rhetorical infrastructure surrounding women and gender-diverse students’ experiences of marginalization. As Mercedes argued, “We should do something starting now to change [the culture.] I want to bring the change.” Similarly, initial interviews with faculty suggest that many want to cultivate a culture of belonging in their classes, but don’t know how to begin. By making communication failure and marginalization visible through an infrastructural approach, we hope to create space for an intervention into the engineering classroom. 



Works Cited:

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Agboka, G. Y. (2020). “Subjects” in and of Research: Decolonizing Oppressive Rhetorical Practices in Technical Communication Research. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 34 (1). 


Beddoes, K., & Panther, G. (2018). Gender and teamwork: an analysis of professors’ perspectives and practices. European Journal of Engineering Education, 43(3), 330-343. 


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