Beyond representation : uncovering the role of language and cognition for multicompetent students in engineering and science

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Even though engineering and science are tasked with developing solutions and knowledge for a diverse population, Black and Brown communities remain severely underrepresented in these disciplines. The problem exceeds easy solutions like "a seat at the table" and requires rethinking with whom and for whom the field designs ideas and technologies. Traditionally, underrepresented groups have felt the pressure to assimilate into dominant ways of speaking and knowing because their own languages and experiences are rarely legitimized. As a result, engineering and science have missed opportunities to draw on the creative insights which diverse individuals contribute. This situation often leads to imperfect solutions with real-life consequences for those who are overlooked and society at large. Building a team with a range of experiences is more than checking a demographic box but a necessity to avoid a future with unjust technological solutions. The education of engineers and scientists thus needs to be explicit about the benefits and practices of incorporating the perspectives of multicompetent individuals and their communities. This dissertation suggests moving beyond representation by centering the language and cognitive resources of culturally and linguistically diverse groups. Drawing upon sociocultural frameworks in science education and translanguaging scholarship, the first study of this dissertation argues that factors beyond mere flexible language boundaries influence students use of their full idiolect in engineering and science. This work provides empirical backing to the question of what would happen if we created linguistically inclusive environments for learning engineering in the early grades. The children recruited for the study participated in equivalent lessons about engineering design with three different language contexts: English, Spanish and both languages. The findings suggested the influence of broader social norms in engineering learning, particularly on students availing themselves of opportunities to draw on their repertoire. Though the learning environment afforded possibilities for students to draw on their language resources, many learners did not tap them when engaged in design. Educational and social expectations about language use made engagement in disciplinary discourses through translanguaging difficult for students. The results signal the relevance of investigating how power structures shape norms about technical and scientific talk, particularly the impact of audience. Building on the arguments from the first manuscript, the second study brings attention to the relationship between audience and language use in engineering, specifically the influence of diversity in the professoriate on choices about ways of speaking. This work uses a mixed-methods sequential explanatory design to identify the factors undergraduates consider in claims of language use in private (home) and public (school) spheres. The data included responses to a national Language Use Survey from Latinx students in STEM fields (primarily engineering) who grew up in Spanish-speaking households. The findings illustrated factors (other than adherence to language boundaries) influencing the ways people speak in the disciplines. This study documented a strong effect of audience on language choices (i.e., who STEM undergraduates talk with shapes how they use their repertoire). Students also reported making decisions about language contingent on topic and place, but the influence of these factors comes from associations with particular audiences. The interlocutors and listeners in engineering, particularly those in positions of power, exert an enormous amount of influence in language use. Inspired by the literature on audience design from sociolinguistics and justice-centered science education, this paper exposed the link between the lack of representation of faculty of color (particularly Latinx professors) and language preferences in engineering education. This work draws attention to the messages that students received from disciplinary audiences because of the lack of diversity in the professoriate. The third study investigates the relationship between language, cognition, and idea generation through the lens of situated learning traditions and frameworks of design justice in engineering. It explores the role of language in creating equitable engineering solutions by indexing the diversity of experiences within multicompetent communities. Through a virtual experiment about design, engineering students were randomly assigned to implicit instruction in the form of language conditions. All participants then received explicit instruction through a prompt. Undergraduates generated features for the next-generation household appliances either in a Spanish and English or English-only condition. After their first design, participants were explicitly prompted to think about culture and language in their considerations. Results suggested that language conditions, in alignment with the linguistic resources of students, led participants to bring into design a set of cultural and linguistic values associated with their communities. Students in the English-only condition were less predisposed to draw on the experiences of their private spheres when thinking about components for the appliance, whereas those in the both languages group were more inclined to contemplate aspects of their own communities in their work. Regardless of the condition, all students benefited from explicit instruction to incorporate culture and language features in their project considerations. Through implicit or explicit instruction, treating the ways of knowing and speaking of multicompetent students as assets for engineering resulted in design considerations that incorporate cultural and linguistic aspects of traditionally underrepresented communities. The conclusion of this dissertation presents the implications of this body of work taken as a whole for researchers and practitioners regarding language use and cognition in engineering and science as well as future scholarship in design justice. It emphasizes the importance of (i) factors (beyond flexibility in language boundaries) influencing student use of their linguistic range, (ii) audience (particularly diversity of the professoriate) when thinking about language in engineering, and (iii) diversity of experiences (indexed through language) for generating equitable design solutions for a just society.


Type of resource text
Form electronic resource; remote; computer; online resource
Extent 1 online resource.
Place California
Place [Stanford, California]
Publisher [Stanford University]
Copyright date 2021; ©2021
Publication date 2021; 2021
Issuance monographic
Language English


Author Joehnk, Greses Anabell
Degree supervisor Brown, Bryan Anthony
Degree supervisor Valdés, Guadalupe
Thesis advisor Brown, Bryan Anthony
Thesis advisor Valdés, Guadalupe
Thesis advisor Martínez, Ramón, 1972-
Thesis advisor Pea, Roy D
Thesis advisor Sheppard, S. (Sheri)
Degree committee member Martínez, Ramón, 1972-
Degree committee member Pea, Roy D
Degree committee member Sheppard, S. (Sheri)
Associated with Stanford University, Graduate School of Education


Genre Theses
Genre Text

Bibliographic information

Statement of responsibility Greses Pérez.
Note Submitted to the Graduate School of Education.
Thesis Thesis Ph.D. Stanford University 2021.

Access conditions

© 2021 by Greses Anabell Joehnk
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-NC).

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