The impact of personal interactions on the experience of African-American males on multiracial student teams

Kelly J. Cross, Marie C. Paretti

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


Team projects in undergraduate engineering programs are critical sites for professional skills development. Team projects allow students to try on professional roles as they interact with peers and faculty on projects designed to simulate engineering work. Also, engaging in engineering activities such as team projects can help students establish a sense of identity within their field, which in turn influences their persistence through college and into a career. Moreover, team projects intersect personal and professional identities and can be a source of conflict for students from populations that are traditionally underrepresented in engineering, such as women and ethnic minorities. While substantial research has identified challenges that women face on mixed-gender teams, few researchers have focused on the experiences of African-Americans on multiracial teams and this study aims to fill that gap. This qualitative study employs a phenomenological approach, using a three-interview sequence with eight African-American male engineering students across academic levels (average age = 19) as they worked on team projects at a large research-intensive, predominantly white institution (PWI). The project durations ranged from two weeks to two full semesters. The semi-structured interviews 1) gathered background information about participants, 2) explored participant descriptions of the team functionality during the project, and 3) asked participants to reflect on the experience in the context of their engineering education and identities. Following the practices of phenomenology, all three interviews for each participant were grouped for analysis to holistically describe the "essence" of each participant's experience, which includes both textural (what) and structural (how) descriptions of the phenomenon. Specifically, this paper highlights the impact of student personal interactions on the experience of African-American males on multiracial student teams in engineering. Based on the phenomenological analysis of a larger study, several units of meaning emerged across participants relative to their experience being an African-American male on a multiracial student team. However, this paper focuses exclusively on the emergent theme personal interactions. While most participants stated that their race did not impact their team experience, they did discuss feeling spotlighted in the larger community such as their department or university. The spotlighting included being singled out during a class lecture, being questioned for studying in the common area, getting "dirty looks" while walking through department buildings or on campus, and being stereotyped generally. As a result, students used multiple strategies to manage peer interactions they experienced during their multiracial student team. For example, the participants emphasized "getting to know" teammates outside of work. The implications of these emerging themes suggest that personal interactions directly influence how African-American males experience cross-race interaction on multiracial student teams. Interrogating the interactions African-American males experience within multiracial teams enhances our understanding of how they experience engineering and what peer interactions reduce spotlighting and disconnection.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
Volume122nd ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition: Making Value for Society
Issue number122nd ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition: Making Value for...
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015
Externally publishedYes
Event2015 122nd ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition - Seattle, United States
Duration: Jun 14 2015Jun 17 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Engineering(all)

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