Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

Student Experiences in First-Year Engineering Classrooms-Exploring Issues of Gender in an Australian Programme

Academic journal article Australasian Journal of Engineering Education

Student Experiences in First-Year Engineering Classrooms-Exploring Issues of Gender in an Australian Programme

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

This research concerns a common first-year engineering programme in which incoming cohorts of students, arranged into groups of 20 students, stay with each other throughout the year. As a group of 20, they attend laboratories, tutorials and workshops together. In essence, this group of 20 forms a 'class', mirroring their secondary school experiences. Such a grouping in these students' transition year to university avoids students feeling isolated or unable to make friends in the typical large first-year classes (Yorke and Longden 2008) and facilitates a sense of belonging. Students of a particular group often work together in self-selected teams in the classrooms to solve problems, conduct laboratories and complete learning activities. Until 2016, the composition of the groups was designed around a strategy of distributed diversity. Each group of around 20 typically consisted of two females, one mature age student, one or two international students and the remainder were male domestic school-leavers, and thus groups reflected the demographics of the incoming cohort. The groups were also arranged such that students with similar pre-tertiary mathematics and science backgrounds were grouped together. Their background affected the freedom to choose the one foundation year elective and their sequence of core units. For instance, incoming students who had no pre-tertiary background physics, select physics in semester one as a 'compulsory' elective and take Engineering Mechanics in semester two.

In 2016, an alternative strategy was trialled. Females were distributed among groups so they formed a minimum of one third of some groups. The rationale for change drew on tokenism theory (Kanter 1977) that suggests minority group members face additional stresses due to numerical or proportional underrepresentation. Female students are a visible minority in undergraduate engineering, comprising around 14%. The strategy and ensuing research was driven by research indicating small groups with gender parity or a majority of females may better support female engineering students (Dasgupta, Scircle, and Hunsinger 2015). It was supposed that groups with at least one-third women would facilitate the formation of self-selected teams with gender parity or a majority of females for classroom activities. These small groups would thus create 'micro-environments' associated with increased confidence, decreased anxiety and increased verbal participation of female students in teamwork (Dasgupta, Scircle, and Hunsinger 2015, 4991).

This research analysed the effect of the self-selected teams' gender composition on female students' engagement and explored the experiences of the 2016 cohort in contrast to other cohorts. The mixed methods research initially gathered and analysed qualitative classroom observation data followed by primarily quantitative data collection and analysis including; Likert scale data on perceptions of the engineering foundation year experience, learning analytics data and student achievement data.

2. Theoretical framework

2.1. Kanter's tokenism

Seminal qualitative research by Kanter (1977, 965) suggested that the 'relative numbers of socially and culturally different people in a group, are seen as critical in shaping interaction dynamics, and four group types are identified on the basis of varying proportional compositions' Those group types were coined 'uniform, 'skewed, 'tilted' and 'balanced,

The first group type, uniform groups, has only one type of people. The second group type, skewed groups, has a large proportion of one type over another, up to perhaps a ratio of 85:15. Skewed describes the historical group type in the engineering foundation year. In skewed groups, the predominant type controls the culture of the group sufficiently to be labelled the 'dominant, The rare few of the other type are highly visible and often cast as representing every one of their type and are 'tokens, of their type. …

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