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Does Major Matter? A Look At What Motivates Engineering Students In Different Majors

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

Student Attitudes and Perceptions

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.500.1 - 14.500.13



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Paper Authors


Sarah Parikh Stanford University

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Sarah Parikh is a third year graduate student at Stanford University working on her PhD in mechanical engineering with a focus on engineering education. She received a BS in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006 and received a MS in mechanical engineering with a focus on microscale heat transfer from Stanford University in 2008.

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Helen Chen Stanford University

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Helen L. Chen is Research Scientist at the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning and Research Associate in the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education. Her current research interests focus on the application of ePortfolio pedagogy and practices to facilitate teaching, learning, and assessment for students, faculty, and institutions. She is also interested in the exploration of the affordances and scalability of these kinds of social software tools and their implications for the design and evaluation of innovative learning spaces to support formal and informal learning.

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Krista Donaldson Stanford University

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Krista Donaldson is a researcher and lecturer at Stanford University. Her interests include design and development, reconstruction and engineering education. She received her PhD from Stanford in mechanical engineering and design where her work focused on product development to promote economic growth in less industrialized economies. Krista has taught at Kenyatta University and the University of Cape Town, and worked as an engineer and designer in a variety of capacities. She is the author of the Engineering Student Survival Guide.

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Sheri Sheppard Stanford University

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Sheri D. Sheppard is the Burton J. and Deedee McMurtry University Fellow in Undergraduate Education, associate vice provost for graduate education, and professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. She is also a consulting senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation, having directed the Preparations for the Professions Program (PPP) engineering study, and co-authored the study's report Educating Engineers: Designing for the Future of the Field (2008). Before coming to Stanford University, she held several positions in the automotive industry, including senior research engineer at Ford Motor Company's Scientific Research Lab. She earned a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Does Major Matter? A Look at what Motivates Engineering Students in Different Majors Abstract

We have found that students’ engineering major does matter when looking at what motivates them to study engineering. This may lead to support programs that are better tailored to the students they serve. In addition, these findings may be important in shaping engineering curricula to attract and retain students of different majors.

Using data from the Academic Pathways of People Learning Engineering Survey (APPLES), a national survey of 21 institutions aimed at identifying and characterizing undergraduate students’ motivations to study engineering. Using demographic information about engineering major, year in school, and gender, we have determined there are statistically significant differences in the motivational factors between women and men and between students of different majors. The six engineering majors that we compared include: mechanical, electrical, chemical, industrial, aerospace and bioX (a compilation of biology-related majors).

Using t-tests and analysis of variance tests (ANOVAs), the trends across majors and gender for intrinsic psychological motivation, intrinsic behavioral motivation, social good motivation, financial motivation, mentor influence motivation, and parental motivation to study engineering were explored.

Our findings show that there are significant differences in the level of motivation for students of different engineering majors. For men, the level of intrinsic behavioral motivation to study engineering is significantly lower for industrial engineering students than for mechanical or aerospace engineering students. For women, the levels of intrinsic behavioral, intrinsic psychological, and financial motivation vary greatly according to engineering major. These findings suggest treating these groups individually when considering motivational factors of undergraduate engineering students.


In this paper a comparative analysis of motivational factors by engineering major is presented to shed light on how various dimensions of the undergraduate engineering experience may be different for students in different majors.

We are interested in looking at motivation for several reasons. The goals of the NSF-funded Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE) were to “identify ways to boost the numbers of students who complete engineering degrees (including increasing the numbers of women and traditionally underrepresented groups)” and to “better support those enrolled in engineering programs”1,2 Identifying similarities and differences between groups of engineering students would provide useful information to those trying to support these students and may lead to a better understanding of women engineering students.

Parikh, S., & Chen, H., & Donaldson, K., & Sheppard, S. (2009, June), Does Major Matter? A Look At What Motivates Engineering Students In Different Majors Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--5283

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: © 2009 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