Dissertation Abstract

Dispelling stereotypes and building capacity: repairing the leaky pipeline between high school and post-secondary engineering education through participatory action research.


Women make up 12.8% of the engineering population in Canada despite decades of efforts by engineering educators and practitioners to recruit and retain women. This dissertation builds on the historical context of feminist influences on education and professional indications that diverse populations reap broad organizational benefits. The research tests the effect of mixed methods research (participatory action research and quantitative analysis of survey data acquired before and after an in-class activity that mirrors the engineering design process) on student beliefs and perceptions in the physics classroom. The purpose of this doctoral research is to diagnose and attempt to mitigate the barriers arising in Physics 11 that appear to deter young women from pursuing further studies in physics or engineering.

Girls make up more than 50% of the Physics 11 population in the Greater Victoria, British Columbia, school districts. In spite of their demonstrated aptitude for physics, based on successfully completing Physics 11, girls persist in choosing non-physics and non-engineering career pathways. Generic studies of high school influencers indicate that girls make career and education choices based on the recommendations of their community, family members, school counsellors and teachers, instead of on aptitude or interest. Studies investigating post-secondary teaching and learning methods reveal minimal gender differences between men and women on both sides of the desk and active learning techniques that connect classroom concepts to practical applications appear to result in greater knowledge acquisition and retention. Therefore, the goal of this project is twofold: to raise awareness of the social narrative and behaviours that perpetuate perceptions of gendered career options for high school students; and to implement and test a solution for systemic curricular change to reduce perceived barriers to young women entering engineering education. The research hypothesis is that teaching physics labs using discovery-based, collaborative and innovative active learning methods results in higher transition rates for girls to engineering education than previously realized. In addition, the students (male and female) who pursue engineering education will have a better understanding of what the career entails.

Using the methods of participatory action research, I engaged five physics teachers from the Greater Victoria region to develop an inquiry-based (discovery-based) lesson plan for our use in their classrooms. Students completed a detailed survey with questions relating not only to the relationship between high school courses and potential careers but also to their sense of belonging in community, school and physics classroom and their feelings of destiny and control. The survey was deployed three times: once within a week prior to the activity in their classroom, once within the week following the activity and once 4-5 months later to test for the persistence of any perception shifts. The intriguing findings imply social change may result immediately upon the formation of the participatory action research team. Regardless, the in-class activity appears to increase perceptions of destiny, control and belonging in the physics classroom for all students, increase engagement in physics laboratory activities and increase some aspects of self-efficacy in physics.

Dissertation & Supplemental Materials available upon request.