“I don’t know how I can do engineering and feel like I’m impacting my community”: A Comparative Case Study of the Cultural Production of Political Identity for Undergraduate Students of Color in Engineering and Computer Science

Project: Research project

Project Details


In this study, I investigate what first year students of color in engineering and computer science at two major universities learn about the sociopolitical values and purposes of their majors, and how this learning is consequential for their political, racial, and disciplinary identities. I propose to study and “see” learning and identity processes as they emerge in practice through a multi-sited ethnographic study of what students learn and how students’ construct and express their identities within the multiple contexts and spaces they inhabit as Engineering/CS college students. Research Sites and Rationale The research sites, UT Austin and UC Berkeley, were selected for several reasons. First, each university is internationally recognized for their Engineering/CS departments. The competitive nature of Engineering/CS majors at these universities requires strong identification with the discipline for successful completion of the degree. Second, each university also has a shared history of institutional efforts to address issues of diversity and equity in STEM. Yet, each university also has a distinct catalogue of initiatives and programs specific to their campus context and needs. For example, compared to UT Austin, there is a relatively stronger emphasis on Science and Technology Studies (STS) at UC Berkeley, including a Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society, which notably includes an undergraduate course sequence. Important differences in institutional programs and cultures, despite common goals and challenges with respect to diversity, provides a unique opportunity to study the complicated interplay between students’ identity formation processes and the sociocultural contexts within which they take place. I have garnered the support of the leadership from primary diversity umbrella organizations at each campus (letters of support available upon request): the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE) at UT Austin, and the Office of Equity and the Division of Equity and Inclusion at UC Berkeley. Methodological Logic To study meaning-making across multiple contexts and across time, I will draw on multi-sited and longitudinal ethnographic methods (Vossoughi & Gutierrez, 2014; Marcus, 1995). Similar to traditional interpretive ethnographic approaches (e.g., Erickson, 2010), multi-sited ethnography ultimately aims to capture how participants’ experience and interpret the cultural practices and values of a particular community. Yet, a multi-sited approach challenges our notions of “community” along two axes: time and space. From a multi-sited lens, rather than neatly bounded terrains of social experience, communities are porous, overlapping, nested, and in tension with other communities, and hence are characterized by hybrid practices and values. So, rather than trying to acquire an “analytic snapshot” of a particular community, within a multi-sited approach, the idea is to “craft a moving picture of social practice…as it unfolds, genetically, in real-time.” (Vossoughi & Gutiérrez, 2014, p. 607). A multi-sited lens is suitable to the goals of this study because it demands examination of how the people, ideas, values, and artifacts of various spaces students experience during their first year as undergraduate students contribute to their views on the sociopolitical values and purposes of their major, and ultimately, their identity formation processes as Engineering/CS students of color. Data Sources I will collect multiple kinds of data including field notes, interviews, survey data, student transcript dat
Effective start/end date9/1/185/1/21


  • National Academy of Education (AGMT 5/17/18)


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