'Eat Your Veggies' Research: Why I pursue qualitative research for an audience of quantitative-minded engineering educators

Stephen Secules
Florida International University
Stephen Secules, Florida International University

Author Profile
published Oct 14, 2020 1:54pm

In conversations on equity and education, I often hear people claim a certain relationship between qualitative and quantitative research— qualitative research can explore new complex topics in depth, so that subsequent quantitative research can demonstrate the trend. Further, if you want to convince an engineering or STEM educator of something, that quantitative trend will be crucial. Since the educator audience values numbers, the qualitative descriptions or arguments will be perceived as anecdotal.

On some level I know what I laid out above is true. I have been reminded of the need for quantitative patterns in order to be convincing when being interrupted during a presentation on qualitative research about marginalization, usually by a faculty member from a STEM background and mostly privileged identity groups (e.g., White, male, straight) asking how large of a problem the issue I'm presenting on is since I only have the perspectives of a small number of students. In these moments I have to choose whether to pivot to quantitative representations of the issue (i.e., giving them what they asked for), or to restate the case that understanding the qualitative experiences of particular humans is important in its own right (i.e., tell them what I think they may need to hear).

I also get the need for numbers— I'm not against numbers. There are certain numbers I think present important cases for equity— consistent disparities in educational outcomes and patterns of bias in systems of employment or justice. These numbers help us focus attention on inequitable systems and measure our own progress in those efforts.

But I think other times our focus on numbers is driven more by our audience's preferences than by truth telling. We quantify the complex aspects of human life in order to produce results that are more amenable to the audience of engineering faculty or other institutional stakeholders. If our goal is to make educational arguments that are easy to digest by STEM educators and leaders, this makes sense. Making easy-to-digest arguments has never been my personal goal. Rather, I am focused on improving engineering education towards equity and inclusion.

I see the engineering educators that I have worked with, university leadership, and the research community more broadly as having certain key strengths and weaknesses. I see a strength of engineers generally as being able to collect, reflect on, and act on data and patterns. As mostly current or former engineers, the engineering education community embraces iteration, does not stand on ceremony or wallow in tradition, and has a pro-social drive to solve problems. If a problem is clearly defined and articulated, engineering educators will often try to solve it in earnest.

On the contrary, the key weakness I have seen in the engineering education community is thinking of students instrumentally, as objects and outcomes rather than as people. I think it is understandably hard for engineering educators to notice the many layers of human interaction that take place in their classroom, to consider the perspective of their students, and to imagine the ways that their own actions and language are perceived. This lack of noticing can impact the classroom culture and the communication channel that will be open to them, since a professor who is more unaware of student perspectives or issues of equity will also not create a welcoming atmosphere or open channels of communication that allow students to share their perspective with faculty. It creates a broken feedback loop that perpetuates marginalizing culture.

These nuances of classroom practice and understandings of student perspectives are exactly what I hope to provide when I conduct qualitative research. Simple acts of listening to students or observing classroom interactions and reflecting that meaning back to faculty can close the feedback loop and improve equity and inclusion in a faculty member's own classroom. I hope by conducting research that reflects this understanding back to faculty members I can improve their own awareness of the contextual aspects of equity and inclusion. I've started calling this my "eat your veggies" research agenda—it's probably not the research faculty members want, but it's the research they need.

Below I've gathered some examples of my and others' qualitative research on equity and inclusion in engineering pedagogy.

Danielak, B. A., Gupta, A., & Elby, A. (2014). Marginalized identities of sense-makers: Reframing engineering student retention. Journal of Engineering Education, 103(1), 8–44. https://doi.org/10.1002/jee.20035

Foor, C. E., Walden, S. E., & Trytten, D. A. (2007). "I wish that I belonged more in this whole engineering group": Achieving individual diversity. Journal of Engineering Education, 96(2), 103–115. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2007.tb00921.x

McLoughlin, L. a. (2005). Spotlighting: Emergent Gender Bias in Undergraduate Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(4), 373–381. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2005.tb00865.x

Secules, S., Gupta, A., Elby, A., & Turpen, C. (2018). Zooming Out from the Struggling Individual Student: An Account of the Cultural Construction of Engineering Ability in Undergraduate Programming Class. Journal of Enginering Education, 107(1), 56–86. https://doi.org/10.18260/p.26239

Secules, S., Gupta, A., Elby, A., & Tanu, E. (2018). Supporting the Narrative Agency of a Marginalized Engineering Student. Journal of Engineering Education, 107(2), 1–33. https://doi.org/10.1002/jee.20201

I will note: although these papers are insightful, they are also long, and perhaps asking faculty members to read them is not a robust plan to change the world. Recently, I've been reflecting on research models that bring these insights to faculty in formats that are more accessible and more likely to be consumed. Examples include collaborative and participatory research models with faculty and students, interactive and reflective workshops with faculty members, and podcast or YouTube dissemination rather than journal papers.

So how do we engage STEM faculty members to create change for equity and inclusion in their classrooms? Quantitative patterns can help motivate the change, but qualitative understandings provide necessary and nuanced insight. And if I'm asking someone to eat their qualitative research veggies, I want to make sure those veggies are made as appealing and accessible as possible.

Suggested Citation:

Secules, S. (2020, October 12). 'Eat Your Veggies' Research: Why I pursue qualitative research for an audience of quantitative-minded engineering educators. Retrieved from https://ascnhighered.org/ASCN/posts/240118.html

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