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Youth Pathways in Becoming Community Engineering Experts

Fri, April 17, 4:05 to 5:35pm, Sheraton, Floor: Second Level, Superior A


Studies reveal that success in school science is not well correlated with the pursuit of STEM trajectories. Even when students are successful in STEM-based learning, many still see science as disconnected from their lives and pursuits.

Our research focuses on how and why youth construct identities in engineering that bridge community and engineering expertise. Specifically, we are interested in the ideas and resources youth move across time and setting in support of identity work that bridges community and engineering expertise, and the relationship between this kind of identity work and action-taking in engineering design.

Our study is grounded in social practice theory, which suggest that identities reflect one’s on-going social existence in the world. Such acts of identity work are complex, for how one is recognized within new communities is an artifact of the power dynamics that operate there (Nasir, 2011).

Identity work represents the idea that authoring oneself in engineering involves an on-going effort, and positions the author with agency. Productive identity work reflects 1) one’s developing knowledge and practice 2) an ability to navigate the dialectic between structure and agency and 3) recognition by others (Holland et al, 2001). The focus on “identity work” foregrounds the on-going ways people figure themselves and are figured – both with/against local and historical narratives and in how individuals navigate the dialectic between structure and agency (Holland & Lave, 2009).

To build claims about the youths’ identity work we employed longitudinal multi-sited ethnographic case study. Data were generated for 14 youth, regarding their participation in an after school community-based science club, and in their resulting community work over the course of 3 years. Data sources include collaborative conversations with youth, interviews, transcripts of after school sessions and community events, and student work.

The youth in our study all engaged in forms of practice that positioned them as community engineering experts [CEEs] – or as youth whose expertise in engineering design and the needs of their community uniquely positions them to leverage both towards taking action. However, youth took at least three different pathways toward becoming CEEs (Horizontal, Humanizing, Collaborative). These pathways reveal the varied forms of expertise and practices youth leverage in taking action, and how expertise and practices move across time/setting, and are repurposed based on context and intended purpose(s) of their action. These pathways also reflect key pivots supporting youth in: a) enacting different "outcomes" specific to engineering expertise, b) gaining and leveraging status/power in their different figured worlds; and c) momentum accrued that propels their CEE identity trajectory forward.

The field does not have empirical evidence for how productive identity work in engineering unfolds over time and across contexts, or how it promotes opportunities to take action with/in engineering. Yet, long-term studies of underrepresented groups in engineering indicate that identity development is critical to why individuals pursue engineering trajectories (Eccles, 2007). Our research sheds light on mechanisms that support identity work in engineering, and how such work relates to new forms of participation and action-taking.