Keywords: women, context, engaged, gender
Creative, Contextual, and Engaged:
Are Women the Engineers of 2020?
Educators, professionals and policy-makers alike recognize that contemporary engineering must be studied and
practiced in context. The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) envisions an "Engineer of 2020" who demonstrates
"dynamism, agility, resilience, and flexibility" to design for an uncertain and rapidly changing world. The
increasingly diverse engineering workforce and marketplace require "cultural competence": that is, a willingness
and ability to consider culture in engineering problem-solving.
Implications of Findings
The implications of this research are significant, given the ever increasing need in the U.S. for more highly
skilled engineers. Analysis of the data described below revealed that women define engineering, approach
engineering problems, and engage in their overall engineering education more broadly than men. Interestingly,
the women considered contextual factors in addition to (rather than instead of) factors oriented toward the details
of the artifact being designed (the retaining wall, in the example from the first year of this study). In this
sense, their approaches to the engineering task were broader than the men’s. Given that this difference was
observed in the first year, early emphasis of such practices is critical.
Prior educational research has also suggested that underrepresented minority populations are more successful in
higher education environments that place high emphasis on context. These findings are highly suggestive for how
engineering education might do better recruiting women and underrepresented minorities. However, the findings
that male participants are more dissatisfied with their engineering education experience and less engaged than
females could also be useful in addressing concerns of persistence among the traditional engineering population,
white men. With greater mechanisms for engagement, engineering colleges might find all their students to be more
satisfied with their undergraduate experiences. If these findings were used to restructure engineering programs,
a more holistic approach might help to graduate students who are better prepared as practitioners to meet the
national need for engineering talent.
|Findings from the students’ first year of study suggest that women were more aware of how
an engineering task is situated within and interacts with its context.
This analysis is seen as further evidence that women are as prepared, if not more prepared to study engineering
than men, considering their greater attention to context. Given the vision of the Engineer of 2020, engineering
education should be more responsive to women’s interests and qualities and should do a better job of providing
opportunities for all students. Shifting curricula from traditional practices into reliance on engaged pedagogy
and campus communities will improve our ability to attract and retain diverse students and will also produce the
kinds of engineers we envision to meet the needs of a global society.
Method and Background
Data were collected from students at four of the partner universities of the Center for the Advancement of
Engineering Education (CAEE) Academic Pathways Study (APS). CAEE is a multi-institution, mixed-method, longitudinal
study which examines engineering students’ learning and development as they move into, through, and beyond their
undergraduate institutions. Data collection methods include surveys, structured and unstructured interviews, and
The study was designed to collect data from 40 students at each of the four institutions. In the first year,
structured interviews and performance tasks were administered to 32 of those students from each institution,
and unstructured interviews and ethnographic observations were conducted with the remaining 8 students at each
institution. (See full-text article at the link below for a complete description of methods.)
What We Found
In the interpretation phase, research team members came together for a 2-day workshop to compare emerging findings.
The authors had each observed modest gender differences while analyzing their respective data sets. The researchers
used the overarching “engineering in context” theme to frame the examination of findings of gender differences and
commonalities emerging from each of the methods.
Findings indicate that women and men conceptualize engineering differently. Regardless of the respondent’s sex,
responses tended to be similar in length and complexity. However, men’s answers tended to be more linear, direct,
and technically based. In contrast, women tended to define engineering more broadly.
Findings from an engineering problem administered to participating students indicated that women and men frame
engineering problems differently. Students were asked to write their answers to the question, "Over the summer,
the Midwest experienced massive flooding of the Mississippi River. What factors would you take into account in
designing a retaining wall system for the Mississippi?"
On average, women’s answers contained a statistically significant greater number of distinct ideas than men’s.
While women and men had roughly the same number of ideas oriented to the detail of the design problem, women gave
greater attention than men to the context of design. These findings from the students’ first year of study suggest
that women were more aware of how an engineering task is situated within and interacts with its context.
Women reported less disengagement in both their engineering courses and liberal arts courses when compared to their
male peers; women also reported less disengagement overall. This finding suggests that women currently are taking
greater responsibility for their own learning, a necessary prerequisite of lifelong learning. In addition to their
relatively lower academic disengagement, female students report higher levels of extracurricular fulfillment than
their male colleagues, suggesting they are more fully engaged with their academic environment.
Our data show that students acknowledge that their engineering knowledge comes from educationally productive
activities, but they are differentially engaged in those activities. In addition, while engagement in extracurricular
activities presents complex effects depending on whether the activities are engineering related or not, engagement
in these productive activities also shows positive outcomes for students, and women show higher levels of engagement
here as well. Consistent with their lower levels of disengagement in both engineering and liberal arts courses, as
well as higher levels of satisfaction with extracurricular activities, female students appear to be closer to the
ABET target of broadly educated, contextually aware, self-direct learners.
Our rich, multi-method view of context and engagement offers interesting new directions for further research to
better understand how engineering education can adapt itself to meet national needs for more and better engineers.
Authors: Deborah Kilgore, Debbie Chachra, Heidi Loshbaugh, Janice McCain, Marcus Jones,
and Ken Yasuhara
Source: Proceedings of the 2007 American Society for Engineering Education Conference
The full paper, including references, is located at the ASEE Web site.
For a printable pdf of this research brief, click here.
Brief created July 2007
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