F8-SP1-5 - Students’ Learning Journeys: The Effect of Student Narration of Learning on Agency and Identity Development

3. Research Work In Progress
Ramona Smucker1 , Julia Benton2, Victoria McDermott2, Yevgeniya V. Zastavker2
1 Wellesley College
2 Olin College of Engineering

In this work-in-progress paper, we explore how engineering students construct narratives of their learning journeys. Specifically, we investigate how they understand the external forces that inform their individual learning journeys, and how they reconcile those with their developing sense of agency. Several of our emergent research questions are: How do engineering students adopt identities, such as “smart” or “rule-follower”? How do academic institutions and students’ relationships with their parents, peers, and mentors inform which identities they assume? How do students use these identities to better understand themselves and their lived experiences? Which of these identities restrict individual agency, and which provide opportunities for personal growth? How does the identity of “engineer'' interact with students’ overall view of themselves? 

In this pilot study, we interview four undergraduates (2 women and 2 men) from Celadon, a small engineering college that educates students through a project-based learning curriculum. The participants come from a range of different graduating classes; 3 were involved with education research at Celadon prior to their interview. We use a semi-structured, open-ended interview protocol adapted from the McAdams’ Life Story Interview (2008). Students are asked to describe their formal and informal learning experiences by narrating personal stories of their individual learning and dividing these stories into a series of chapters. The research participants are then asked to reflect on key learning moments in their life, including high point and low point learning moments, among others. Aided by methods of grounded theory and narrative analysis, memos are written to allow for the emergence of preliminary analytical themes. 

Our preliminary analyses indicate that explicit and implicit identities imposed by the people in their social and professional network inform how engineering students think of themselves. One student describes how her friends thought of her as a “smart person” concluding that “school must be super easy for [her].” This perception led to her frustration about how hard she had to work to succeed in school. We find that students describe identities like “smart” or “ a good person ” as restrictive or problematic. However, sometimes these same identities allow them to stretch their narratives of selfhood. One participant describes how his new-found “queer” identity was like “a door opened” to allow for a “new way of seeing [him]self.” 

Current literature demonstrates that students’ interpretations of engineering can evolve and expand after their participation in an engineering program (e.g., Bennett, Ha, and Czekanski (2016)), including an explicit link between the students’ choice to study engineering and their understanding of themselves. We find that students’ different emergent identities evolve and take on different roles over the course of their academic and life careers and even over the course of the interviews. Through the narrative process, students can challenge and expand their pre-existing identities, including the identity of engineer, and develop agency over their own stories. Understanding the ways in which educators, including engineering educators, play a role in guiding their students through this process is critical in supporting student holistic development.