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Comparison of Mechanical Aptitude, Prior Experiences, and Engineering Attitude for Male and Female Mechanical Engineering Students

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Student Learning and Assessment I

Tagged Division

Mechanical Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.352.1 - 22.352.12



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Paper Authors


Michele Miller Michigan Technological University

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Dr. Michele Miller is an Associate Professor in mechanical engineering. She teaches classes on manufacturing and human factors and does disciplinary research on microelectromechanical systems and precision machining. Her educational research interests include problem solving in the lab and informal engineering education.

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Anna Pereira University of California, Berkeley

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Benjamin Mitchell Michigan Technological University

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Comparison of Mechanical Aptitude and Prior Experiences for Male and Female Mechanical Engineering StudentsThe percentages of women studying engineering are quite low relative to other previously male-dominated professions such as law and medicine. The low numbers of women mean there is alarge untapped resource for future engineers. The percentage of women studying mechanicalengineering at our university is consistently less than 10%, and nationally the percentage hashovered near 14% in recent years (NSF, 2004). Could it be that a renewed emphasis on thepractical turns off female students or men who don’t see themselves as “gearheads”? Viewingthe skilled trades as cousins of the engineering professions helps to explain the low numbers ofwomen in mechanical and electrical engineering. The percentages of women (Bureau of LaborStatistics, 2005) in professions such as auto mechanic (1.8%), carpenter (1.9%), machinist(6.8%), and electrician (2.6%) are so low that most of us have never met a woman in one of theseprofessions. If engineers with previous experience working on cars or building houses werehighly valued, then would those without these experiences get discouraged? One approach toattracting more women may be to market engineering as being much different than a skilledtrade. Then again, some of those trade skills seem to be very valuable. Perhaps, instead, we needto do a better job of replicating the educational experiences gained by working in the skilledtrades.We have been investigating ways to measure mechanical aptitude, including: a paper and pencilmechanical aptitude test (MAT), rating of expertise based observation of students doing hands-on tasks, and performance on physics computer games. The MAT was adapted from mechanicalaptitude practice tests that serve as preparation for civil service, military and trade exams. It hasquestions about gears, pipes, linkages, and other mechanisms. We used two hands-on tasks. A“hard” task involved the measurement of pressure on a pipe rig used in a fluids lab course, andthe “easy” task involved the centering of a cylindrical part on a roundness tester. Students werevideotaped while doing the tasks, and two raters evaluated the expertise and anxiety of eachstudent on a 1 to 4 scale. The computer physics games include Bridge Builder (the player buildsa bridge to span a canyon cost effectively), Fantastic Contraption (the player builds a device thatmoves an object to a designated location), and Ball in Cup (the player places ramps, bolts andsprings to direct a ball into a cup). Male students scored higher then female students on theMAT and physics games at statistically significant levels.Students also completed prior experience and engineering attitude questionnaires. We examinedcorrelations between prior experiences and MAT performance and found activities such asoperating machinery, repairing equipment, and using tools to correlate most highly. The priorexperience results showed that male students spent many more hours engaging in the activitieswith the strongest correlations to MAT performance. The attitude survey included questionsrelating to confidence and enjoyment of figuring out how things work and troubleshooting.Based on the results, the male students had more confidence and enjoyment than female studentsat statistically significant levels.

Miller, M., & Pereira, A., & Mitchell, B. (2011, June), Comparison of Mechanical Aptitude, Prior Experiences, and Engineering Attitude for Male and Female Mechanical Engineering Students Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17633

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