Barriers to Broadening Participation in Engineering Competition Teams

Despite years of efforts to increase diversity in STEM, engineering continues to be a white male dominated discipline. This low representation of female and minority students is especially visible in student, experiential-learning, engineering competition teams (SELECT). SELECT provide some students opportunities to develop their engineering technical and professional skillset. Students who are excluded from participation, particularly students from the underrepresented groups, are at a significant disadvantage.

To investigate what factors contribute to the low diversity in SELECT, we implemented a multi-year mixed-methods research project. In the first phase, we interviewed 29 local SELECT team members and found an exclusive team culture that limited students’ participation in multiple ways. Characteristics of this culture include extreme time commitment, stereotyped gender roles, and the presence of homophily and transitivity effects. To determine the generalizability and transferability of the findings from local SELECT to SELECT at other academic institutions, we developed an online survey for nation-wide distribution to SELECT team members. Data were collected from 116 SELECT members from across the United States.

Overall, analysis of the surveys showed that diverse students’ participation in SELECT is challenged at multiple levels. “Entry barriers” are often encountered when students first attempt to join the team. These barriers are a result of insular SELECT cultures and membership, which make it difficult to find a comfortable entry point. “Persistence barriers” are then faced by team members who desire to become “core” members. New members must demonstrate commitment and earn the trust of more senior members while managing the costs incurred from this required time commitment. Finally, students who desire to participate in team leadership are confronted with a “legacy barrier” exhibited through nepotistic practice for team leader selection.

We believe the systemic problems of SELECT could be appropriately addressed through administrative guidance and oversight. In particular, our findings suggest that the lack of advisor involvement and guidance might reinforce those barriers and contribute to the construction of an exclusive team culture. An effective solution will require broad engagement from faculty and staff and will involve building transparent and inclusive processes.

Link to Paper

Pan, R., R. L. Shehab, D. A. Trytten, C. Foor and S. E. Walden (2016). Barriers to Broadening Participation in Engineering Competition Teams. Proceedings of 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, LA, American Society for Engineering Education.

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