Smart Stuff: Meet the Beliefs in Engineering Research Group (BERG)

Posted: February 21, 2019

Do you remember the first person who told you that you were smart? Alternatively, do you have a memory of a time you were made to feel that you weren’t smart enough? What does it actually mean to be “smart”?

Research supports that the concept of intelligence is culturally constructed. The belief that some minds are special, chosen, superior to others operates under the notion that intelligence is fixed and predetermined. Here in the Department of Engineering Education a research group is refuting this idea, working off the theory of Growth Mindset, which was developed by Stanford Psychology professor Carol Dweck, to better understand beliefs about intelligence and how they affect the learning behaviors of individuals.

Beliefs about intelligence are especially salient in engineering culture, where the idea that only “smart” people can be engineers is pervasive. The Beliefs in Engineering Research Group (BERG) is conducting research on beliefs about intelligence and other cultural norms in engineering with the aim of shifting engineering culture to be more inclusive and realistic.

BERG Research Group
Dr. Emily Dringenberg, Assistant Professor of Engineering Education, leads BERG. Amy Kramer and Giselle Guanes Melgarejo are the graduate research associates helping to lead BERG with support from three undergraduate research assistants: Carter Morris, Genevieve Thanh, and Adithya Ramaswami.

In their work, BERG systematically investigates beliefs in engineering and how those beliefs affect engineering students, engineers and engineering culture using qualitative research methods. This work has implications for diversity and inclusion in engineering because normative beliefs about intelligence align with how engineering remains predominantly a white and male field in which the engineers do not reflect the diversity of their users.

For example, BERG is working on an NSF-funded project (in collaboration with Dr. Amy Betz at Kansas State University) related to beliefs about intelligence of undergraduate engineering students to better characterize how undergraduate engineering education forms these beliefs. The ultimate goal of the research is to provide insight in how to form engineers who will become life-long learners. This project has also been expanded to include students in the K-12 space in collaboration with a local public school teacher in Delaware.

The group is also developing several conference papers related to “smartness” in engineering culture and the cultural construction of intelligence. These include an interdisciplinary dialogue in collaboration with a researcher at Purdue University with the aim to leverage literature from psychology and anthropology to more realistically study “smartness” or ability and its role in engineering culture. Another publication reviews literature related to the cultural construction of intelligence and how it has been the “gatekeeper” within the engineering community. The societal assumption is that engineers are smart and only analytical in terms of their intellectual prowess, which can alienate students who present a propensity toward verbal or social skills. These biases are not simply present with students but also with faculty and society. In order to understand student beliefs, it is essential to analyze who is influencing them.

Emily Dringenberg and students

Another current project undertaken by the group addresses the experiences of students in Engineering Capstone courses by exploring student beliefs about decision making. The NSF-funded project is three years in duration, and the group is well into the first year of the study. What intrigued the group about the capstone project is that the approach incorporates more real-world context than other engineering courses. That means there is more space for empathy between engineers and the user—students are designing for an actual user rather than solving hypothetical problems analytically. Yes, the goal is to create a product (e.g., a car engine), but that product will be worked on by another person (e.g., a mechanic). The product needs to be user friendly, which requires engineering designers to utilize empathic reasoning including the perspective of the future mechanic who maintains their design. The role of empathy as well as intuitive and rational reasoning in engineering decision making is explored through research on the capstone course: “It’s all connected to people in the end,” Amy Kramer says.

Currently, Dr. Dringenberg is collaborating with fellow EED Assistant Professor Rachel Kajfez to pursue federal funding to study how student beliefs and identities related to intelligence and engineering vary across different educational tracks (e.g., honors, scholars, general) and alternative pathways into engineering (e.g., regional campuses and community colleges). This research is more than an inventory on the perception of intellect—it is a reconfiguration of what it means to be smart and all the abilities that contribute to engineering and a critical look at ways that our systems of educational tracking may perpetuate social inequity.  As such, the study has implications for systematic efforts to increase diversity in engineering.

BERG attributes their progress to the open culture of feedback in the group. From undergraduate to doctoral student, all ideas and perspectives are welcome. Giselle Guanes Melgarejo describes the ambiance of the group as a “psychological safe space.” There are not good beliefs or bad beliefs; rather, the intention is to understand beliefs in a nuanced way as a reflection of the broader culture of engineering education. The intentionality of growth mindset begins within BERG itself.

Narrow conceptions of what it means to be “smart” perpetuate exclusionary ideas about who can be an engineer. Society tends to view “talent” through a narrow lens—the Beliefs in Engineering Research Group is widening that lens to make engineering education more inclusive, stepping outside of the limited (and limiting) boundaries of “ability” and “intelligence.”

by Marisa McGrath, Program Assistant, 

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