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By Holly M. Matusovich, Ruth A. Streveler, and Ronald L. Miller

Woman with Crystal BallHow
They See Themselves

Students who identify with engineering persist in the field.

Calls for a larger and more diverse pool of engineers have prompted closer examination of student persistence in engineering programs. While previous research has examined the characteristics of students who stay in engineering versus those who leave, our study provides a different perspective, the student perspective. We analyzed a series of interviews with the same group of 11 students, collected annually over four undergraduate years as part of the Academic Pathways Study. We then used students’ own words to develop and describe patterns in the ways that these students made choices about continuing studies in engineering. Because motivation theory offers insight into individuals’ choices, we used Eccles’s expectancy-value theory, as described in the Handbook of Competence and Motivation, to provide a framework for understanding how and why students persist in engineering.

To understand how students choose to become engineers, we focused on the values they place on earning an engineering degree. Although students choose engineering for many reasons, we found, in accordance with expectancy-value theory, that the reasons can be categorized into four groups and that patterns emerged across the categories. Our key finding is that valuing engineering because it is consistent with a student’s sense of self (i.e., identifying with engineering) is extremely important in the choice process. Our participants either believe engineering is, or is not, consistent with who they are, and this belief did not vary during the four years. Participants in these two groupings had very different experiences. Participants who believe engineering is consistent with their sense of self are pleased with their choice to be engineers. For example, in the second year, Joe talks about engineering: “It is what I like doing. It’s what I do. And, it’s just rather convenient for me to think that I can get a job doing it.” For Joe, becoming an engineer fits naturally with how he thinks of himself. Conversely, participants who do not believe engineering is consistent with their sense of self tend to justify their choice to become an engineer based on other value categories, such as the usefulness of their degree. These participants continually struggle with their choice to become engineers. They have strong doubts about staying in engineering and must continually justify their decision. Anna talks about engineering as a stepping-stone to one of many other possible non-engineering careers, for example. Finally, while connecting one’s sense of self to engineering is important for all students, our findings suggest that this may be even more important for women.

So what does this mean for engineering education practice? How can faculty encourage students to persist in earning engineering degrees? First, recognize that the choice to persist in engineering is not a one-time decision. Students continue to make this choice every semester of every year. For some students, like Joe, this is an easy choice. For other students, like Anna, this choice takes ongoing thought and planning with frequent re-adjustments of future career plans. This means that faculty across all four years and in all engineering classrooms can meaningfully affect students’ perceptions of engineering.

Second, take action. Ask students what they think it means to be an engineer and how they plan to use their degrees. Then, expose students to a wider variety of engineering career possibilities to broaden their perceptions of engineering work. Seeing more ways to practice engineering creates more opportunities for students to find a match between the kind of work they want to do and the kinds of work engineers can do. Go beyond teaching students engineering skills. Instead, help students see the many ways these skills are used by engineers in the varied jobs, activities, and work situations that are all “engineering.” We need to make sure students do not develop a narrow view of engineering that omits activities and goals that might particularly interest them as individuals.

Holly M. Matusovich is assistant professor of Engineering Education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University; Ruth A. Streveler is assistant professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University; and Ronald L. Miller is professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the Center for Engineering Education at Colorado School of Mines. This article is an extract from “Why Do Students Choose Engineering? A Qualitative, Longitudinal Investigation of Students’ Motivational Values,” in the October 2010 Journal of Engineering Education.




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