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Revising roles: Enhancing an engineering capstone course to improve outcomes for women

Abstract

Women leave the engineering profession at a high rate, and this attrition is observed both in the university setting and in the workforce. Female students cite negative experiences with peers as a major contributor to their dissatisfaction with engineering. Many of these negative experiences occur in team projects that are ubiquitous in engineering programs. In the absence of intentional instruction on teamwork and effective collaboration methods, students-especially women-struggle and have negative experiences that stymie the self-efficacy and confidence-building that should occur during the senior year. The objective of this paper is to highlight key issues with engineering capstone projects and to identify best practices that result in better outcomes for women. This work evolved from the first author's experience in teaching the civil engineering capstone course and from participating in a 'Writing in the Disciplines' group, led by the second author. The group provided a forum for brainstorming ideas and the course provided a platform for testing these strategies. Four recommendations evolved from this effort: 1.) Education on team function and bias in team dynamics is helpful. 2.) Teamwork skills and strategies for collaboration and conflict resolution need to be taught. 3.) Mentoring and engaging with students is an important aspect of the process and can be enhanced to better serve women. 4.) Reflection and self-assessment exercises can be integrated to build self-efficacy and confidence in students. Assessment was done using data collected from mid-term evaluations, peer evaluations, self-assessment exercises, input from industry judges, and teaching evaluations. The major outcome of this study was that instructors can make reasonable modifications to team projects to better serve women. Likewise, students can develop skills that improve their ability to function on teams, leading to better capstone experiences and improved self-efficacy as they enter the engineering workforce.

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