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Characterizing Identity Profiles for Engineering Students Attending Small Colleges and Universities

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Motivation, Goal Orientation, Identity, and Career Aspirations

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Ellen Zerbe Pennsylvania State University

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Ellen Zerbe is a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. She earned her B.S.M.E. at Grove City College. She is currently researching under Dr. Catherine Berdanier in the Engineering Cognitive Research Laboratory.

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Catherine G.P. Berdanier Pennsylvania State University Orcid 16x16

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Catherine G.P. Berdanier is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Pennsylvania State University. She earned her B.S. in Chemistry from The University of South Dakota, her M.S. in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering and Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University. Her research interests include graduate-level engineering education, including inter- and multidisciplinary graduate education, online engineering cognition and learning, and engineering communication.

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Kyeonghun Jwa Pennsylvania State University

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Small colleges and universities have historically seen fluctuations in enrollment, but current forecasts show a decline in student enrollment for which many small schools are already being forced to adjust. Small schools often boast that their value lies in personalized education, experienced teachers, and opportunities for engagement. In 2017, about 52,000 of the graduating engineering students came from small colleges and universities. While this statistic is a small fraction of the total number of graduating engineers each year, these students may be significantly different than their peers trained at larger schools if the claims made by small schools are correct. “Small” in this context refers to the Carnegie Classification of Institutions which defines small as between 1,000 and 3,000 students enrolled. This paper presents common influences that impact the identity of students who attend small colleges and universities and the importance of different identities. Interviews were conducted with N=29 undergraduate engineering students from four small schools: a religiously affiliated school balanced between liberal arts and engineering majors, two technical schools with predominately engineering majors, and a non-affiliated liberal arts school where engineering majors were a minority. These interviews discussed various aspects of studying engineering at their school, their interaction with other students, and their thoughts on how their school supported different aspects of their identity. After the interview, participants had the option to take a survey where they outlined and ranked identities which they felt applied to them. This study used the Model for Multiple Dimension of Identity (MMDI) as a framework to interpret the qualitative data using abductive analysis. Results show that the type of small school significantly impacts the prominent identities of its students. Schools where engineering students were a small portion of the campus population supported multiple identities in the students beyond identifying with their major. Students who attended this type of school were also more likely to believe that their school environment significantly impacted which identities were more prominent. Students who attended schools that were engineering focused were more likely to hold their major as their most important identity with fewer other categories contributing to how they identified. The prevalence of gender and race also varied between school types. Preliminary results indicate that different small schools tend to attract and promote prominent student identities resulting in greater prevalence of certain “molds” of students. While each individual is different, recognizing these “molds” can increase our understanding of the type of students who attend small schools and open the door for tailored instruction that capitalizes on prominent identities in a school’s population.

Zerbe, E., & Berdanier, C. G., & Jwa, K. (2021, July), Characterizing Identity Profiles for Engineering Students Attending Small Colleges and Universities Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36791

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