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 JEE SELECTS

RESEARCH IN PRACTICE
BY JULIE MARTIN TRENOR AND SHIRLEY L. YU

DIVERSITY WITHIN DIVERSITY

One-size-fits-all won’t help recruit minorities and women.


Engineering educators are well aware of the urgent need to produce more engineering graduates in the United States, but an equally important challenge is to create a more diverse pipeline of students committed to the field. That means attracting more women and under-represented minority students to major in engineering — and to pursue it as a career.

In our recent survey of ethnically diverse women studying engineering, our goal was to better understand the factors that influence why underrepresented students choose it as a major, how they view their learning experiences, and what determines whether they stay in engineering or switch to another discipline.

Previous studies of underrepresented minority engineering students have included participants who were either ethnically isolated at predominantly white institutions or were members of the majority ethnic group at minority-serving institutions. Our work was unique because we took an ethnically diverse sample of women at the University of Houston, where no group is considered to be in the majority. In 2006, approximately 23 percent of the school’s undergraduate engineering students were female, and 59 percent of those women reported belonging to an ethnic minority group — 28 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, and 11 percent African-American. Our sample was also socioeconomically diverse, including women who were first-generation college students, immigrants, or children of immigrants.

The study participants answered questions about their reasons for entering engineering, their perceptions of the field, their educational experiences, and what they considered barriers to or support for their education and career planning. Then, personal interviews allowed the women to describe their experiences in their own words. Several valuable insights emerged from those interviews:

  • Family influences a student’s major and career choice in different ways for different ethnicities. All the students said that someone on their school staff encouraged them to pursue engineering: But that school influence was more instrumental for Hispanic students because, in this sample, Hispanic students were less likely to have college-educated parents who could knowledgeably guide their children’s choices. This suggests that to recruit students from underrepresented backgrounds, engineering schools should get the message about their programs to teachers and counselors, as well.

  • The reason for selecting engineering as a career was expressed in very general ways by white, African-American, and Asian students; Hispanic students, however, were more likely to express their choice of engineering specifically as a means of helping their community or immediate family, by providing economic security. This is a powerful starting place for promoting the engineering profession.

  • A sense of belonging and ample social supports existed for women of all ethnicities and contributed to positive educational experiences. Gender-based support programs and student organizations were mentioned as contributing to the students’ sense of belonging and their intention to stay in engineering. This indicates that institutional efforts to direct funding, space, and staffing toward women-in-engineering programs and student organizations can positively contribute to the retention of female students.

  • Many students of color were burdened with balancing academics, financial obligations, commuting to campus, and, in some cases, significant family responsibilities. Financial aid can significantly decrease the educational barriers encountered by low-income students, and engineering programs tailored to recognize students’ multiple roles and duties may also help them stay in school — and in engineering.

As the United States continues to promote diversity in its scientific workforce, engineering programs across the country must continue to increase the participation of minorities and women, who represent the changing face of engineering education. Surely, knowing why those students choose engineering, and why they stay in engineering, will help colleges and universities attract more underrepresented students.

Julie Martin Trenor is an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering and Science Education at Clemson University. Shirley L. Yu is an associate professor of educational psychology in the College of Education at the University of Houston. This article is excerpted from “The Relations of Ethnicity to Female Engineering Students’ Educational Experiences and College and Career Plans in an Ethnically Diverse Learning Environment” in the October 2008 Journal of Engineering Education.

 

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