Jenni Case

Associate Professor, University of Cape Town


Fall 2011: Mandela Mellon Fellow

Cracking the Code: Widening Access to Science and Engineering Education for a New Generation of Students

Project Description

Cracking the Code: Widening Access to Science and Engineering Education for a New Generation of Students

The academic discussion on science and engineering education tends largely to depart from a western post-industrial perspective where faculty are concerned about the decreasing interest that school leavers demonstrate for studies in these areas. Across the developing world, however, these programmes continue to be attractive routes for talented school leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds who aspire to escape the poverty trap. Nonetheless, even when these highly selective programmes manage to attract some of the smartest and most hard working young people, the success rates are often quite poor. It is easy to blame schooling. Universities continue to be predicated on the assumption of an intake who have obtained a high quality schooling, yet in very few places in the world has mass schooling succeeded in offering a uniformly high quality educational experience. But to blame the schools is not to find a way forward. Universities need to find a way to match the aspirations and backgrounds of the students who are entering the institution, and to offer them an experience where they can learn and excel and ultimately become the new generation of graduates who will provide leadership in their countries, and nowhere is this need more acute than in science and engineering, especially given the environmental and technological challenges faced in the 21st century.

A position put forward in the well known “Two Cultures” debate in the late 1950s suggested that science was the great democratic zone of higher education, where a student was not required to bring with them the culture of the middle class home. Everything needed in science could be learnt and acquired in the classroom and in the laboratory and anyone could feel at home. This vision has not played out in the post-war massification of higher education and the experience of many students is one of exclusion. Science and engineering have been traditional homes for the white middle class male and have not easily expanded to include a broader range of students. The issues around women in science and engineering have been highlighted in recent decades but the experience of students from racial groups other than white has been less well documented. Black students, in particular, continue to be underrepresented in science and engineering, and the small minorities who do gain access do not achieve the same levels of success as their white counterparts.

This book provides an in-depth analysis of the ways in which science and engineering programmes continue largely to reproduce social inequalities. The work builds on a new perspective in higher education studies which is informed by social theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, Basil Bernstein and Margaret Archer and is grounded in the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar. Drawing on a large body of empirical work, some of it conducted in the important and challenging context of post-apartheid South Africa, a detailed picture is provided of the complex interactions between structure, culture and agency that sustain the status quo. A close analysis of the knowledge structures in science and engineering and the recontextualisation of these in curricula points to the invisible hurdles that face the student who attempts to proceed through these degrees. This is compounded by pedagogical modes that are predicated on students being able to pick up these tacit messages about what is valued in the discipline. A further compounding of the matter comes from a broader institutional context that in subtle ways extends a sense of belonging to only a limited group of students.

These findings form the basis for a whole new way of looking at what needs to be done to transform science and engineering undergraduate education such that it can in fact offer true opportunities for the students that are attracted into their programmes. A range of curricular modes currently touted are closely scrutinized and critically assessed, following the risk well documented by sociologists of education such as Johan Muller and Karl Maton that apparently ‘progressive’ curricula are often responsible for further marginalisation of students who can’t ‘crack the code’ of their invisible pedagogies. The traditional pedagogies in university level science and engineering are also found to be lacking in their capacity for facilitating high quality learning across the board. There are pedagogical modes that are more effective in this regard, and examplars from contexts where these have been successfully employed are described in some detail. Finally, the possibilities and constraints on change at an institutional level are closely analysed and practical prescriptions are offered.

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