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A ‘Model’ Minority

Like other groups, Asian-Americans endure stressful stereotypes.

By Deborah A. Trytten, Anna Wong Lowe, and Susan E. Walden

Asians and Asian-Americans occupy a unique position in engineering education. Though overrepresented relative to the U.S. population, they remain a minority among engineering students at most institutions. Do Asians and Asian-Americans face similar stereotyping and discrimination issues as other minority groups? Our long qualitative and quantitative study of engineering students from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds suggests they do. The results should serve notice that equity in STEM education is not ensured simply by proportional representation.

Launched in 2006, the study used critical race theory as a framework. The theory holds that race is used by society to benefit the powerful. We discovered that many of our Asian-American participants talked indirectly about the “model minority” racial stereotype and how it affected their daily life in engineering. This stereotype holds that students of Asian heritage are hardworking, intelligent (particularly in math and science), interested in economic prestige and educational attainment, and uninterested in racial-identity politics.

While some aspects of the model minority stereotype could be considered desirable qualities in engineering students, such as the presumption that someone is intelligent or hardworking, that thinking is problematic. Many participants saw the United States as a colorblind meritocracy, despite describing everyday experiences of being racially stereotyped and telling stories of blatant discrimination. For example, one participant perceived that Asian-American students were trying to get As while white students were just trying to pass. Another participant described being asked, “Do you eat dogs?” by a project group member during introductions. A third participant told of an Asian instructor who stated that he would be stricter in grading Asian students because Asian students study more.

The model minority stereotype is generally invisible to or ignored by both engineering students and faculty, including Asian-Americans. Moreover, engineering students have few venues to learn about the impact of race or how to articulate or respond to any negative consequences they might experience. Engineering courses generally do not address racial issues. The curricula are so full that students who are interested in racial issues have little opportunity to take relevant courses without delaying graduation. And, unlike other groups, there is no widely recognized national technical organization for Asian-American engineering students, although an educational and professional organization has recently been established.

The model minority stereotype is dangerous for Asian-American engineering students because it implies that they do not need the support offered to other minority populations. Affirmative action policies, for example, typically exclude Asian-Americans. Despite facing many of the same hurdles as other underrepresented minorities, such as attending poor urban schools, having families with no or little experience with the U.S. higher education system, or being of limited financial means, Asian-American students are assumed to have all the prerequisites for success in engineering. Like all stereotypes, the model minority label may result in excessive stress and diminished accomplishments.

To encourage greater equity, institutions should consider training faculty and staff to recognize stereotypes, including those applied to Asian-Americans, and to respond to all incidents of everyday racist behavior. That includes countering assumptions that Asians are not suitable for leadership positions or lack American citizenship. In addition, institutions should realize that the absence of discrimination complaints by minority students does not mean the institution is equitable. Finally, institutions should extend to Asian-Americans the same benefits provided to members of underrepresented groups.


Deborah A. Trytten and Susan E. Walden are researchers with the Research Institute for STEM Education (RISE) in the College of Engineering at the University of Oklahoma. Anna Wong Lowe is an instructor of communication at Oklahoma Baptist University. This article is excerpted from ‘“Asians are Good at Math. What an Awful Stereotype’: The Model Minority Stereotype’s Impact on Asian American Engineering Students” in the July, 2012 Journal of Engineering Education. The work was funded by National Science Foundation Grant DUE-0431642.

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