About FREE

FREE stands for “Feminist Research in Engineering Education” and is a diverse research group in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University.  FREE operated under the name RIFE, standing for “Research in Feminist Engineering,” from 2007-2014.

Our Vision

Our job is to think creatively about gender and engineering education, and to think about, write, and teach in ways that will result in a change in how engineering education is done.  To that end, we ask big questions, undertake ambitious projects, and employ appropriate rigorous research methods.

We ask big questions:

  • When someone talks about “real engineering,” what do they mean? What is “real engineering”?
  • When someone talks about being a “real engineer,” what do they mean? How does someone become a “real engineer?”
  • How do real people navigate engineering careers?
  • How do real people understand their engineering work?
  • What can be done to bridge gaps experienced between real people and the engineering profession?
  • Who decides the answers to these questions?  How can our research prompt new answers to these questions?

We undertake ambitious projects:

  • How can we honor but also contribute to and change our department? our college? our university? our community? our profession? our world?

We employ appropriate rigorous research methods:

  • What methods do we need to employ to answer the question we are actually asking?
  • What can we learn from each other about doing research?
  • What can we learn from other disciplines about doing research?

Who would make a valuable addition to our team?

Our team compromises people from many different disciplines.  You will find engineers and sociologists, professors and undergraduates, people who regard themselves as professional educators and those who regard themselves as professional students working along side one another.  We recognize that many different people can make, are making, and will make significant contributions to our work.

Who would we like to participate in the work of FREE?

We try to do things a little differently than a conventional research model.  We want to empower people in our diverse community.  From developing action-research collaborations with professors to looking for projects to benefit our local community, we want to try to involve as many different people as possible.

The FREE research group investigates:

Academic Career Pathways (ACP-ADVANCE): To what extent are women’s career pathways into and through academic faculty levels in STEM disciplines accurately modeled by pipeline or chilly climate ideas? What might be other metaphors that faculty use to describe their own careers? An explicit and critical component of this study is to determine the applicability of these models to women of different ethnicities.

Institutional Ethnography (ADVANCE-IE): This study applies ethnographic methods to the Colleges of Engineering, Science and Technology to explore the impact of Purdue’s organization and rules through the experiences of people, particularly women, who work within them.  We use interviews, discursive analysis of texts, and participant observation to understand the institution structure and organization by exploring how real individuals negotiate the “everyday world” (lived realities in a particular institutional location).

Gender in JEE: The Journal of Engineering Education is the premiere journal that publishes engineering education research in the US, and some argue globally.  Yet the research it publishes on gender in engineering seems to be theoretically impoverished.  This study explores characterizing the gender-related research published in JEE, and argues for new theoretical directions.

Assessing Sustainability Knowledge (ASK):  Current engineering students will practice engineering in a world of global climate change, limited natural and material resources, increased awareness of the cost of energy, and increased global competition, all in the context of an increasing global population, a need for social equity, and a desire to increase global quality of life.  In short, they will need to work in a world where sustainability is key to engineering practice. The ASK project is engaged in developing  a framework to assess sustainability knowledge in engineering undergraduate students that can help engineering faculty members identify and structure essential sustainability-related content and develop methods to bring these concepts organically into courses across the curriculum.

CAREER: Learning from Small Numbers: This research will use personal narratives about engineering education contributed by white women and students of color in undergraduate programs in order to understand how the structure of their educational institution assists and hinders their educational success. These narratives will be analyzed both deductively (informed by sociological theories of institutional structure and critical intersectional theories of gender and race) and inductively (deploying feminist and decolonizing methodological strategies and theories) to propose a new theoretical framework of ‘gendered’ and ‘raced’ institutions in the context of engineering education that can be incorporated into researchers’ and practitioners’ ways of understanding ‘underrepresentation.’  The educational plan for this project will prompt engineering leadership to ‘learn from small numbers.’ The plan uses tools borrowed from design research—‘personas’ and ‘informance’—to help department chairs, curriculum committee chairs and deans at PWIs envision data-driven responses to the question, “If my institution was designed around the experiences of women and people of color, what would it look like?” This exercise will provide engineering education leadership with new conceptual tools with which to reconsider the underrepresentation of women and people of color, and new strategies to increase their representation.