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Advancing Cultural Change: Turning Student Stories into Films

A Cal Poly research team is turning student stories into films through Advancing Cultural Change (ACC), an interdisciplinary ethnography project aiming to create a more equitable learning environment on campus.  

Advancing Cultural Change

Anthropology professor and researcher Dr. Coleen Carrigan sought to uncover the ways that engineering culture affects underrepresented groups in the classroom. ACC research endeavors began in 2015 when Carrigan built a team to help her conduct ethnographic research in the Cal Poly community.

Sociology senior Noah Krigel and anthropology and geography senior Alana Salas-Yoshii joined her team as research assistants to help further ACC’s scope. With their help and help from students in her Cultural Anthropology class, Carrigan has collected more than 800 student responses about their stories and thoughts on Cal Poly’s classroom climate.

“The data itself is students’ experiences at Cal Poly,” Carrigan said. “When we turn them into case studies, we’re hoping that the cases will resonate with students because it’s their peers’ lives and stories.”

Carrigan and her research team found in responses that white male overrepresentation in engineering and business has negatively affected the experiences of minority groups in these academic fields. Historically underrepresented groups reported feeling isolated in classroom and lab environments.

The team then turned their data into film scripts. The scripts include real quotes from real students at Cal Poly who shared their experiences in the classroom. Many students expressed their experiences with racial bias, gender bias, and “majorism” — a term meaning “to insult or reject non-engineering knowledge and the pursuit of liberal arts education.”

These film scripts were presented to students in civil engineering and anthropology classrooms. The research team asked students to give feedback and thoughts on the scripts after reading these lived student experiences. The research was then updated to add this new data which included student reactions.

“We want to see students’ reactions to being given a story from their peers’ lives,” Carrigan said.

In winter 2019, these film scripts were turned into virtual reality films in Professor James Werner’s Advanced Digital Video classes. Now, the ACC team plans to incorporate these films into their research as well.

“The goal is to create an immersive experience for the viewers,” Salas-Yoshii said. “We’re hoping these stories will resonate more if they really feel like they are a part of the dialogue.”

This project has been well received in academia. A paper detailing ACC’s research won Best Diversity Paper in the American Society of Engineering Education Conference, a large conference with more than 30,000 attendees. Currently, another paper about the concept of “majorism” is under review at the Harvard Education Review. Additionally, Salas-Yoshii and Krigel have presented this work at multiple conferences, including Change the Status Quo and Students of Color Summit.

“This undergraduate research experience is helping me transform the way I think,” Krigel said. “It’s shifted so much of how I view the world. Usually you don’t get this type of experience until you’re in graduate school at least. To say I’m already a published author is incredible.”

Even considering their academic success, Krigel and Salas-Yoshii both agreed that the most fulfilling aspect of the project has been seeing their work impact their peers’ views on issues of diversity and inclusion on campus.

“Diversity and inclusion initiatives are really important to me as a student of color and as a woman,” Salas-Yoshii said. “There’s not a lot of people on campus who understand what it’s like. So that’s why this work is really important to me, and I have a personal stake in it. The things we study are things I’ve experienced or my friends have experienced, or things that people I know have contributed to.”

“I feel so honored to work with students who have this passion for qualified research and applied research. These are ways to change the world that start in your backyard,” Carrigan said.

Learn more about the Advancing Cultural Change research project and their upcoming events here.


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