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Connecting with First-year Engineering Students’ Interest in Social Justice Issues through Ethics Lessons to Sustain Student Retention in Engineering

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Embedding Sociotechnical Systems Thinking I

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


Kathryn Waugaman University of Colorado Boulder

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Katie is an undergraduate student researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is interested in why students choose to study engineering and what retention methods are successful for universities, particularly in underrepresented communities. She is a Senior in Mechanical Engineering and plans to work in renewable energy when she graduates in December.

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Janet Y Tsai University of Colorado, Boulder Orcid 16x16

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Janet Y. Tsai is a researcher and instructor in the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado Boulder. Her research focuses on ways to encourage more students, especially women and those from nontraditional demographic groups, to pursue interests in the field of engineering. Janet assists in recruitment and retention efforts locally, nationally, and internationally, hoping to broaden the image of engineering, science, and technology to include new forms of communication and problem solving for emerging grand challenges. A second vein of Janet's research seeks to identify the social and cultural impacts of technological choices made by engineers in the process of designing and creating new devices and systems. Her work considers the intentional and unintentional consequences of durable structures, products, architectures, and standards in engineering education, to pinpoint areas for transformative change.

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Malinda S Zarske University of Colorado, Boulder

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Malinda Zarske is a faculty member with the Engineering Plus program at the University of Colorado Boulder. A former high school and middle school science and math teacher, she has advanced degrees in teaching secondary science from the Johns Hopkins University and in civil engineering from CU-Boulder. Dr. Zarske teaches undergraduate product design courses through Engineering Plus as well as STEM education courses for pre-service teachers through the CU Teach Engineering program. Additionally, she mentors graduate and undergraduate engineering Fellows who teach in local K-12 classrooms through the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program’s TEAMS initiative, is on the development team for the TeachEngineering digital library, and is faculty advisor for CU-Boulder's Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Her primary research interests include the impacts of project-based service-learning on student identity, pathways and retention to and through K-12 and undergraduate engineering, teacher education and curriculum development.

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Connecting with first-year engineering students’ interest in social justice issues through ethics lessons to sustain student retention in engineering

Many professional engineers agree that the most rewarding aspects of their jobs are seeing their ideas come to life and having a direct effect on people’s everyday lives [1]. Students respond positively to messages that promote these values of engineering, yet there are low retention rates in engineering due to students’ perception of a learning environment that fails to motivate them [2]. Engineering ethics lessons are important in the world of increasingly complex issues, as engineers with rigid, mono-cultural perspectives will not be able to see the spectrum of diverse human experiences within the contemporary complex world [3]. To overcome the hurdles that aspirational, change-making engineers face, universities must nurture a culture that produces engineers that are knowledgeable and passionate about the social justice implications of decisions made in their careers. These goals can in part be accomplished by engaging students in a first-year ethics lesson that helps them to retain the content through interest-eliciting instructional methods.

Student engagement plays a significant role in the academic achievement of students. In this study, engagement is studied in the context of capturing students’ generally pre-developed sense of social responsibility in efforts to increase student retention in engineering programs. Engagement can be measured through “situational interest (SI)”, which defines how students connect to lesson content and either do or do not retain this content over time [4]. One model of situational interest identifies three stages of interest development: Triggered, Maintained-Feeling, and Maintained-Value [5]. Maintained-Feeling refers to a students’ deeper understanding of content as students make profound connections to the material. This interest can develop into the third stage of SI, Maintained-Value, in which students apply concepts learned to other situations in their lives.

The goal of this study is to identify and analyze engagement strategies of six different instructors in first-year engineering projects course ethics lessons. The research questions are “What are successful engagement strategies instructors can use to achieve Maintained-Feeling and even Maintained-Value in their students?”, and “How do these engineering ethics lessons affect students’ perspectives of an engineering education?” These questions investigate the connections students form between their social justice beliefs and if relevant engineering ethics content can help students find connections between themselves and the engineering curriculum. If students’ sense of Maintained-Value increases, so does their association with an engineering education and the eventual result is increased student retention in engineering.

This study will involve a pre-survey to students to gauge pre-developed commitment to social justice issues, and a post survey to analyze the Maintained-Feeling and -Value effects of the lesson to formulate projections on effects on the students’ persistence in engineering. Teaching Dimensions Observation Protocol (TDOP) [6] observations of the 50-minute class period will help connect student engagement to particular methods and events in the lesson. A focus group may also be used to further investigate specific “events” in a lesson that incurred specific engagement results based on the survey.

[1] National Academy of Engineering, “Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering,” The National Academics of Science Engineering Medicine, 2008. [2] American Society for Engineering Education, “Going the Distance: Best Practices and Strategies for Retaining Engineering, Engineering Technology and Computing Students,” Aug. 2012. [3] M. G. Prasad, “The role of cultural diversity in enhancing engineering education,” Stevens Institute of Technology, 2007. [4] Hidi, 1990; Hidi & Renninger, 2006; Mitchell, 1992; Schraw, Flowerday, & Lehman, 2001. [5] L. Linnenbrink-Garcia et al., “Measuring Situational Interest in Academic Domains,” Educ. Psychol. Meas., vol. 70, no. 4, pp. 647–671, Aug. 2010. [6] Teaching Dimensions Observation Protocol (TDOP) [Scholarly project]. (2014, August). In Teaching Dimensions Observation Protocol (TDOP). Retrieved February 2, 2018, from

Waugaman, K., & Tsai, J. Y., & Zarske, M. S. (2018, June), Connecting with First-year Engineering Students’ Interest in Social Justice Issues through Ethics Lessons to Sustain Student Retention in Engineering Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30219

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2018 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015