Investigating Student Experiences of Engineering Culture During COVID-19: A Comparative Case Study

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Virginia Tech

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked rapid shifts to engineering education, causing changes to course formats and student experiences. The culture of undergraduate engineering programs undoubtably affected this transition online and affected how students interpreted their experiences. To date, research on engineering culture has explored the values, beliefs, and underlying ideologies of the culture. However, what we know about engineering culture was captured predominantly during periods of stability. Because COVID-19 provides an opportunity to either challenge or uphold aspects of engineering culture, it was imperative to capture the experiences of students undergoing an engineering education during this time. In order to understand what facets of engineering culture were salient in students' interpretations of their classroom experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, I conducted a multiple case study exploring mechanical engineering students' constructions of their experiences taking second and third year courses during the pandemic. I compared two mechanical engineering programs – one in the United States and one in South Africa – by conducting semi-structured interviews with 10 to 11 mechanical engineering undergraduate students at each site as well as 1 to 2 key informants. My analysis identified the following cultural features that emerged as salient from students' perspectives during the pandemic at both sites: intrinsic hardness, differential access to resources, and application and design. Additionally, my analysis identified the following cultural features that emerged as salient at only one site: seeking help, job market, and scientific way of thinking. The key difference between sites appeared with respect to differential access to resources. This study captures and reports critical data about students' constructions of their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. By investigating engineering culture during a time of stress, this research identifies the most salient features of engineering culture that remained constant through the pandemic as well as the features that changed due to the pandemic. Further, the global comparative aspect of this work highlights which features of engineering culture are universal and which are influenced by national context. Overall, this research aims to inform future educational responses to disasters as well as future change efforts in engineering.

engineering culture, student experiences, COVID-19, pandemic, case study