Using Complex Systems Theory and Methods to Gauge the Gains and Persisting Challenges of Broadening Participation Initiatives
Effective Years: 2023-2026
During the last decades, there have been significant investments in Broadening Participation Initiatives (BPIs) aimed to increase the participation of marginalized groups in engineering. Yet the plethora of factors that influence the success of BPIs and persistent challenges faced by BPIs complicate a strong grasp of their impact. Not understanding the aspects that make BPIs effective, limits their potential for institutional change. BPIs are often implemented within higher education institutions, which are complex systems with intricate dynamic interactions among multiple people and factors. Therefore, to gauge the impact of BPIs it is necessary to adopt systems approaches that acknowledge such dynamic complexity. This project adopts two well-established complex systems methods to bring theoretical and practical value to harness the impact of BPIs in higher education institutions: (1) Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) to create a comprehensive theoretical model of the complex dynamics and distinct configurations of factors that lead to the outcomes targeted by a BPI; and (2) Systems Dynamics Modeling (SDM) to refine the theory of drivers and barriers to the BPI goals. The research outcomes of this project include the refinement of institutional change theories that advance women faculty in engineering and identify barriers and areas that can be leveraged for women’s success.
The goals of this two-phase project are to (1) test the capabilities of QCA and SDM in refining theories for institutional change, and (2) innovate in the translation of qualitative evidence into quantitative performance measures that could support the complex system modeling of BPIs impact. This project focuses on an exemplary, well-established BPI case: the ADVANCE initiatives to influence the success of women faculty in engineering. In phase 1, Acker’s Inequality Regimes will be used as a theoretical framework, and publicly available data will be collected from 15 research one (R1) institutions that were early ADVANCE grantees and 15 comparable institutions that were not. Qualitative data will be transformed into quantitative measures through content analysis and discourse analysis. QCA models could identify the different theoretical paths leading to outcomes related to the recruitment and retention of women, particularly women of color. In phase 2, the theory of ADVANCE impact will be further refined through SDM. First, by identifying dynamics in the system illustrated in Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) through qualitative data collected from interviews with women faculty and administrators from a subset of the selected institutions in phase 1; and second, by enriching and strengthening the developed CLDs through Group Based Modeling performed in focus groups. The research outcomes of this project will include (1) refined theories of institutional change for the advancement of women faculty in engineering, including potentially new and confirmed causal relationships, as well as identification of persisting barriers and points of leverage for women’s success, (2) methodological innovations in translating qualitative data to quantitative performance measures, and the use of complex systems methods to study institutional change. The project results will be shared with practitioners through webinars, virtual workshops, and participation in relevant summits and conferences, in particular those appealing to the ADVANCE community, such as AIM and ARC, as well as women in engineering networks, such as WEPAN.
This project is supported by NSF's EDUCore Research (ECR) program. The ECR program emphasizes fundamental STEM education research that generates foundational knowledge in the field. Investments are made in critical areas that are essential, broad and enduring: STEM learning and STEM learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.