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Hands Off? Access and Embodied Cognition Among Black Students in Engineering

Sun, April 7, 8:00 to 9:30am, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Floor: Second Floor, Civic Ballroom North


Even after starting college, becoming a scientist too often remains a hazy goal for underrepresented students. Traditional “weed-out” courses have been found to bludgeon their interest, confidence and progression in STEM programs (Chang, Sharkness, Hurtado, & Newman, 2014; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997). Moreover, underrepresented students tend to have less access to advanced and laboratory science courses in high school (Hanson, 2008; Muller, Riegle-Crumb, Schiller, Wilkinson, & Frank, 2010). This disparity can hinder their success in undergraduate STEM programs (Author, 2015; Gasiewski, Eagan, Garcia, Hurtado, & Chang, 2012). STEM intervention programs developed to encourage minority student participation have the potential to enhance diversity through opportunities to engage in undergraduate research. Found to be a high-impact practice for underrepresented students and college students in general (Finley & McNair, 2013), undergraduate research opportunities can also make science careers and the science itself tangible rather than abstract. In turn, such programs facilitate opportunities to broaden participation in science and diversify STEM fields. Student participation from the widest possible identity groups facilitates a more equitable learning environment and helps address long-standing social justice issues in STEM (Roth & Tobin, 2007).
Frequently overlooked as a mechanism to enhance diversity, hands-on learning involves the direct physical manipulation of objects to scaffold and advance content mastery, supporting epistemological and ontological acquisition in educational settings (Haury & Rillero, 1994). Conceptualized as embodied cognition (Wilson, 2002), it appears to enhance STEM interest development and future career choice. Specifically, this approach is associated with knowledge retention and deep learning gains (Akınoğlu & Tandoğan, 2007; Bonwell & Eison, 1991; Litzinger, Lattuca, Hadgraft, & Newstetter, 2011). While most science teachers believe that hands-on learning “is at the heart of science learning” (Nersessian, 1989, p. 179), few empirical studies have qualitatively assessed its effects among undergraduate students in research laboratory settings. Rarer still are projects centering student voices, thus acknowledging and incorporating students’ intellectual wealth concerning practices that potentially expand STEM capacity for populations with multiple and intersecting marginalized identities.
This study examines black undergraduate engineering students’ experiences with hands-on learning, while enrolled in a university summer research fellowship in a historically black college/university in the Southeastern U.S. Using two rounds of qualitative interviews with fifteen student participants, this study critically assesses how hands-off practices have contributed to underrepresentation of marginalized groups in STEM. While the curriculum focused on abstract engineering topics (i.e., robotics, materials development), findings identified hands-on learning as a vital component, a finding supported by prior work on its importance of STEM interest development and future career choice (Nersessian, 1989; Haury & Rillero, 1994). Indeed, thematic coding analysis found that students who participated in hands-on projects were metacognitvely aware of the pivotal connection between hands-on experience and motivation for conceptualizing abstract topics. Students reported the need to see tangible outcomes of their research. Conversely, students – women in particular - deprived of hands-on experiences described frustrated awareness that their learning was impeded and reported decreased motivation. We conclude with implications for faculty, institutions, and scholars.