Participation, Representation, and Future Engineers: An engineering-specific examination of capital and inequity in the United Kingdom

McDonald, Rory (2023) Participation, Representation, and Future Engineers: An engineering-specific examination of capital and inequity in the United Kingdom. Doctoral thesis, University of Central Lancashire.

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The United Kingdom faces longstanding challenges within its engineering domain with poor and homogenous participation with educational and career pathways contributing to skills shortages and a lack of diversity amongst UK engineers. These economic and social justice challenges are fundamentally concerned with the same root issue of how individuals can be supported to enter and traverse trajectories to become engineers. Despite significant attention and investment engineering inequities in access, participation, success and representation endure. This thesis therefore identifies a need to develop a more sophisticated and solution-orientated understanding of engineering inequities that can inform impactful interventions to address engineering inequities within the UK.
To develop this understanding the thesis adopts the Bourdieuian capital framework to consider the influential resources that support some individuals to engage with the engineering domain. The experiences of secondary school-aged learners, as the potential next generation of engineers, are examined to develop understanding of engineering inequities within the UK. Data is collected from 921 secondary school-aged learners from England and Scotland through a questionnaire methodology to investigate the forms of supportive resource that align to engineering inequities. The science capital model developed by Archer and colleagues is identified as an influential capital-based perspective on inequity in the science domain. This model is critically investigated and found to lack a practical relevance to engineering but is adopted as an influential template through which to develop a richer, engineering-specific understanding of inequity.
A four-stage model and instrument development process is then undertaken to create the engineering capital model and instrument: a tool capable of examining the engineering resources that underpin engineering inequities between groups. A theoretical model of engineering capital is first created through a critical synthesis of existing literature. This model includes forms of cultural capital, social capital and behaviours and practices that can support engineering educational or career aspirations. A quantitative instrument of engineering capital is then created through data reduction and regression analyses. The instrument is found to be a valid perspective on engineering inequity that aligns to current understanding, offers new insights and can reasonably predict the engineering aspirations of learners. This thesis offers a number of valuable contributions to support greater understanding and intervention with the engineering inequities underpinning skill shortages and diversity challenges in the UK. The theoretical model of engineering capital unifies distinct strands of previous study under a common, unifying framework and so offers a rich conceptualisation of how individuals are supported to become engineers. The empirical instrument is capable of measuring the engineering capital of young learners to identify the degree to which individuals are supported with resources that facilitate future engineering trajectories. This operationalisation facilitates a more nuanced understanding of engineering inequity beyond simplistic descriptions that rely on gender, ethnic, or social class groupings. The forms of capital identified as significant within this model and instrument may be drawn on to inform interventions to address inequity and support a larger and more diverse population of future engineers.

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