“I don’t know how I can do engineering and feel like I’m impacting my community”: A Comparative Case Study of the Cultural Production of Political Identity for Undergraduate Students of Color in Engineering and Computer Science.
Sepehr Vakil

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Northwestern University

Primary Discipline

In STEM education, particularly in engineering and computer science (CS), research tends to overlook political dimensions of learning and identity. This project is based on the premise that deepening our understanding of political identity, which I define as the extent to which a keen awareness of injustice and a commitment to working towards social, cultural, or political change is central to one’s sense of self, will have important implications for connecting STEM learning to fundamental human needs and societal dilemmas. Specifically, I am interested in the cultural production of political identity, or the ways in which learning environments cultivate, suppress, or otherwise mediate students’ political selves in the learning process. Using a comparative case study methodology, this study examines the cultural production of political identities for first-year undergraduate engineering and CS students at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Tehran, in Iran. These research sites were selected based on key similarities as well as key differences between the two universities. UC Berkeley and the University of Tehran are both internationally recognized for their science and engineering programs, as well as for their historical legacies of student activism and political engagement. Yet, while engineering/CS students at UC Berkeley (and in the US more generally) are not known to be particularly engaged in sociopolitical issues, engineering students at the University of Tehran have historically been at the forefront of freedom struggles in Iran. Across both contexts, I will take up the following research questions: (1) What do first year undergraduate computer science and engineering students learn about the sociopolitical values and purposes of their major? (2) How does this learning cultivate, suppress, or otherwise mediate students’ political identities? Findings from this study will broaden how we understand identity processes in STEM contexts, and will also have implications for efforts to rethink the ethical, moral, and political dimensions of engineering and computer science education.
About Sepehr Vakil
Sepehr Vakil is an assistant professor of Learning Sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. Previously he was Assistant Professor of STEM Education and the Associate Director of Equity & Inclusion in the Center for STEM Education at the University of Texas at Austin. His research draws on critical ethnographic, historical, as well as participatory design-based methodologies to examine the politics of learning and the politics of knowledge production in STEM disciplines, with a focus on engineering and computer science. His work has appeared in the Harvard Educational Review, Journal of the Learning Sciences, Cognition and Instruction, Equity & Excellence in Education, and Teachers College Record. Dr. Vakil received his M.S. in Electrical Engineering from UCLA, and a Ph.D. in Education with a focus on mathematics, science, and technology from UC Berkeley.

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