Professor Emma Treadway poses at desk
Engineering an Identity
Trinity professor Emma Treadway ’11 secures NSF grant to study affect and identity

Trinity University’s engineering science students are often so busy designing and creating that no one gets to ask them a simple question:

What makes an engineer an engineer

What emotions and experiences play a role in creating this sense of identity? And how might this process be unique for women and minorities?

Trinity graduate and Trinity engineering science professor Emma Treadway ’11 has secured a National Science Foundation grant of $178,171 to delve deeper into these issues. Her project, in partnership with University at Buffalo professor Jessica Swenson plans to focus around the interactions between affect and identity in first- and second-year engineering students, with a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion in mind. 

“This is an engineering project that’s a little different from my previous research,” Treadway says. “It's more focused on the engineering education side of things. We’re asking this big-picture question of, how does affect influence the development of engineering identity, how does identity influence affect, and we’re going to really represent the diversity of our students by looking at the development of engineering identity and its ties to the emotions and the values that students have within the lenses of their other identities, such as race and gender.” 

Engineering science professor Emma Treadway '11 leads students in her summer research lab.

“Affect” is a psychological term describing an individual’s underlying experience related to feelings or moods. Across multiple fields, ranging from mathematics to sociology, there are a growing number of studies launched to understand how this interplays with issues of identity.

But Treadway’s project—a two-year effort that will follow two groups of about 16 students to and (partially) through the engineering science major at Trinity—is unique for its goal to include issues of diversity and engineering identity, whether students end up as engineers or not.

“We're really interested in tracking both the students who stay in engineering and the ones who switch to other majors,” Treadway says.

Treadway hopes this research will shine a light on something not often talked about in a world of chemical processes, mechanical gears, and electrical circuits: the inner workings of students themselves, especially in terms of emotion.

“‘Affect’ includes emotions, but it also includes our students’ values or beliefs about a subject,” Treadway says. “You have your emotions, but then you can also have an overall sense that engineering is ‘cool’ or ‘useful.’ You might also have values, like ‘being an engineer is socially important’. 

Students at computer

Treadway says this research will also explore the unique ways in which, psychologically, the academic field of engineering is more closely tied to a specific career path (being an engineer), than many other fields. “Having your engineering major be really closely tied to a profession–that also contributes to your sense of identity.” 

Treadway, a graduate of Trinity’s engineering science program herself, says she’s excited to study something she lived firsthand: being a young engineering student during the years where you make decisions about your own path.

But she’s also taking care to make sure her research represents the challenges of this experience, too, especially in regard to gender and diversity.

“Both Jessica and I do have these experiences of being women in a largely masculine engineering space,” she says. “That comes with things like feeling that you, maybe, can't show that you're really frustrated, or you can't show that you're upset because that might be perceived as ‘not looking like an engineer.’ Those are definitely experiences that I remember happening.”

Professor and student put armbands on

Above all, this is not a research project where subjects are numbers in a spreadsheet. The student subjects will be real people, with real experiences, and those experiences matter to Treadway, regardless of their impact on her research.“I’ve had students who are more emotional in my office hours apologizing for being upset that they didn't do as well as they wanted to do. So if a student is sitting in front of me tearing up, because they're frustrated with how maybe something went, I don't want them to feel like they have to apologize: I don’t want them to feel that their experience is somehow a ‘non-engineering thing.’”

“I imagine that we're going to find additional things with students who have intersecting identities or other identities than being women in engineering,” Treadway says. 

Treadway says she’s eager for her lab to get started on this project: “Undergraduate research at Trinity is super important to me. I'm so excited to work with our undergrads because my experiences so far have been that I've really been able to have undergraduate researchers from Trinity do things that I would normally associate with higher-level work. Some of these students are in their sophomore year, and they're doing work that I might not typically expect a sophomore to be able to do.” 

Treadway, a rising star in Trinity’s engineering science department, says this grant was her first swing at NSF funding—a prestigious accomplishment for any professor—and a testament to the strong tradition of undergraduate research at the University.

“This was my first submission to an NSF grant as a faculty member,” Treadway says. “It was very exciting to have that recognition that, if the NSF is funding it, this is work that people care about.”

Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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