Experiential Learning & Teaching in Higher Education


Despite an extensive amount of research focusing on women in engineering, the gender disparity within the engineering workforce is the most significant amongst workforce disparities in the United States (National Science Foundation, 2018), with engineering being labeled the “last gender-equitable profession” (Pierrakos, Beam, Constantz, Johri, & Anderson, 2009, M4F-1). Although there is a substantial amount of literature on the experience of women in engineering, there has been little progress in regard to the recruitment and retention of women engineers in higher education and in the workforce over the past several decades.

The current study implements a Participatory Action Research framework to better understand women engineering students’ experiences participating in cooperative education (co-op), with the goal to explore their experiences through a participatory process and support their development of action items. We employed a qualitative participatory method, Group Level Assessment (GLA), to explore the women's experiences on co-op. The GLA method allowed for the women participants to be involved with the data generation, data analysis, and prioritization. Action items developed by participants would then be shared with appropriate stakeholders, such as Deans, administrators, and employer- in hopes of creating positive change.

Themes were developed by participants through discussion during the GLAs. Themes include, (1) impact of relationships, (2) struggle for equality, and (3) growth through the co-op experience. In addition to the description of the themes, narratives accompany each of the themes, designed to illustrate the thematic ideas, topics, and tensions. The themes we discovered had significant overlap and crossover, helping to reiterate the complexity and uniqueness of each woman's experience.

The women agreed that co-op was an opportunity to learn, grow professionally, and gain exposure in their field of study, however, many women find it difficult to navigate the experience. Several of the women noted not feeling heard or seen during their co-op experience, recognizing they were highly visible as women but not as engineers. The ability to connect and feel supported while on co-op contributed to women’s confidence and influenced their overall growth during the experience, giving them a sense of belonging.

Our study found that relationships are the key contributor to women’s learning, growth, and development during the co-op experience. This is a significant finding, acknowledging that if women are at a disadvantage in the growth and learning process during co-op, due to the contextual factors associated with building relationships, this will ultimately hamper their ability to contribute in the future and progress in the field. It can be hypothesized that until women have equal access to developing relationships with peers, colleagues, and supervisors, they will continue to be at a disadvantage in the engineering space.

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