Exploring Role Identity and Resistance as a Complex System amongst Doctoral and Undergraduate STEM Students

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-4155-251X
McAlister, Anne, Education - School of Education and Human Development, University of Virginia
Chiu, Jennie, ED-CISE Department, University of Virginia

STEM students assume many roles, including engineer, researcher, educator, and student, through which multiple role identities may form. When social expectations of roles become internalized, they become role identities. Role identities, especially engineering or science identity, relate to persistence and belonging in STEM. Roles that students take on can represent the culture of the institution and academia at large; thus, understanding academic role identity and how institutional norms may influence role identity is important in contributing to equitable participation in STEM.
Further, many societal inequalities are inexorably linked to engineering and technology that are pervasive and transformational in our society. Engineering students from underrepresented backgrounds may care about addressing social inequalities but may have a challenging time identifying with the historically white, masculine culture of engineering that emphasizes technical aspects of engineering. Social identities, role identities, and social justice identities are thus all intertwined in STEM students’ experiences.
In manuscript 1, I explore physical science doctoral students’ academic role identities as a complex system to unpack factors that constrain the behavior and define the nature of doctoral students’ academic role identities. In this multiple case study, responses to open-ended reflective questions and transcripts of narrative-style interviews with eight participants were qualitatively coded and salient themes drawn through cross-case analysis. Participants ascribed the most value to researcher and student identities and the least value to an educator identity. Time spent in a role, institutional recognition, advisor relationships, community in graduate school, and interest were factors that participants perceived to influence their role identities, along with the gender identity of women. Results highlight the ways in which institutions may be able to support doctoral students, including increased support for time management, equitable opportunities for authentic research experiences, equitable support in advisor relationships, and the importance of intentionally fostering community within science departments.
In manuscript 2, I consider engineering doctoral students’ role identities as a complex system to investigate to what extent and how the multiple role identities that engineering doctoral students take on interact. Reflective prompts exploring role identities were completed by 60 engineering doctoral students at a southeastern research university. Written reflections were coded and patterns among the codes were used to foreground salient themes. Participants perceived (1) that knowledge gained as a student was the foundation for acting in the other roles; (2) the engineer and researcher role identities as strongly related and the educator role identity as less strongly related to other roles; and (3) the educator role as tied to the dissemination of information, which together reveal a common understanding of how the academic role identities relate. Results from this study demonstrate the need to examine engineering doctoral students’ role identities as a complex system with recommendations for how institutions might better support engineering doctoral students’ academic goals.
In manuscript 3, I use the lenses of transformational resistance and engineering identity to explore ways that engineering identity, social identity, and identification with social justice may be co-developed in engineering students. This single case study examines the counternarrative of Andre, an Afro-Latino male undergraduate computer engineering student who took an engineering course that integrated issues of racial inequality. Results show that Andre’s social identity was not only related to but was inseparable from his engineering identity in that he identified as a “Black engineer.” His experiences as a Black person caused him to have a personal connection to his critiques of social oppression, and he learned how he might have a role in working toward social justice through engineering. Thus, for Andre, identification with engineering, race, and social justice were all related. The findings of this study may have implications for how institutions leverage students’ social justice resources that they bring into engineering, integrate issues of social justice into engineering education, and broaden perspectives of engineering such that the field might appeal to a wider variety of students. Results highlight the value and utility of integrating issues of social inequality into engineering education for potentially increasing interest, persistence, and representation in the field of engineering.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Identity, Higher Education, Engineering Education, STEM Education
Issued Date: