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Engineering Persisters and Non-Persisters: Understanding Inflow and Outflow Trends between Middle School and College

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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

Persistence and Retention I

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.600.1 - 22.600.16



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Paper Authors


Cheryl A.P. Cass Clemson University

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Cheryl Cass is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Engineering & Science Education at Clemson University and will soon join the faculty of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at North Carolina State University as Director of Undergraduate Programs. Cheryl completed a B.S in Biological and Agricultural Engineering from NCSU and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Bioengineering from Clemson. Her work focuses on the intersection between science identity, math identity, engineering preconceptions, and engineering career choice in the key decision-making years during the transition from high school to college.

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Zahra Hazari Clemson University, Department of Engineering & Science Education and Department of Mathematical Sciences

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Dr. Hazari’s research focuses on reforming content and pedagogy in the physical sciences in an effort to improve critical educational outcomes for under-represented groups. Having studied performance outcomes, she is currently interested in identity theoretical frameworks which have proven particularly helpful in explaining persistence. Her work is supported by several grants including an NSF Early Career Award and an NSF GSE grant.

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Philip Michael Sadler Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

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Philip M. Sadler earned a B.S. in Physics from MIT in 1973 and an Ed.D. from Harvard in 1992. Dr. Sadler has taught middle school science, mathematics and engineering, as well as science, science methods, and research methods at Harvard. His research interests include assessment of students' scientific misconceptions and how they change as a result of instruction, the high school to college transition, and models for enhancement of the skills of experienced teachers. Materials and curricula developed by Dr. Sadler are used by an estimated fifteen million students every year.

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Gerhard Sonnert Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

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Gerhard Sonnert is an Associate of the Harvard Physics Department and a Research Associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He received master's and doctorate degrees in Sociology from the University of Erlangen, Germany, and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard University. One of his major research interests has been the impact of gender on science careers. This research has resulted in two books (both authored with the assistance of Gerald Holton): Who Succeeds in Science? The Gender Dimension and Gender Differences in Science Careers: The Project Access Study.

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Engineering Persisters and Non-Persisters: Understanding Inflow and Outflow Trends between Middle School and CollegeThis study was conducted in an effort to reveal trends in student inflow and outflow with respectto engineering as a career interest. The data reported were collected as a component of thePersistence Research in Science and Engineering (PRiSE) project. The purpose of PRiSE was tosurvey college/university students about their interests and prior experiences in STEM and toidentify experiences that positively influence students in their choice to pursue STEM disciplinesin college. Data collection was achieved by implementing a survey to a nationally-representativesample of students enrolled in freshman-level English classes in the fall semester of 2007.College students were asked to report their primary career interest at four time points: middleschool, beginning of high school, end of high school, and college. From the 34 randomly selected colleges and universities in the US, 6,860 students participatedin the PRiSE survey. Students who reported an interest in engineering prior to college but not incollege were termed “non-persisters,” and their shift away from engineering was mapped in anengineering outflow Sankey diagram which includes information on the discipline that drewthem away. Similarly, student inflow into engineering at the beginning of college from alldisciplines was assessed.Engineering Outflow (Non-Persisters; n=573)There were 573 non-persisting students of whom 265 first reported an interest in engineering inmiddle school, 188 at the beginning of high school, and 120 at the end of high school. Themajority of these non-persisters lost interest in engineering careers during the high school years(between the beginning of high school and the beginning of college). More specifically, betweenthe beginning and end of high school, 42% of the non-persisters had switched interests andbetween the end of high school and beginning of college, an additional 33% had lost interest.Non-persisters became interested primarily in biology/medicine/health (22%) or other non-science (54%), a subgroup consisting of professions such as business, law, English/language arts,etc. Other science-related fields (computer science, physical science, other science) attracted theremaining students away from engineering.Engineering Inflow (n=751)There were 751 students (11% of the total PRiSE sample) who selected engineering as a careerchoice at the beginning of college. Only 37% of engineering inflow occurred by the beginningof high school while 81% of total inflow was reported by the end of high school, suggesting asignificant generation of student interest in engineering during the high school years.Further analysis of personal and STEM-related experiences reported in PRiSE will allowcomparison of engineering persisters and non-persisters. For example, career motivations (e.g.ability to help people, ability to invent new things), performance and confidence in science andmath, and exposure to specific high school classroom practices will be assessed. Therefore,information gleaned from this study has potential to improve not only an understanding ofappropriate timing of student recruitment into engineering, but also the factors that can promoteinterest in engineering as a career choice.

Cass, C. A., & Hazari, Z., & Sadler, P. M., & Sonnert, G. (2011, June), Engineering Persisters and Non-Persisters: Understanding Inflow and Outflow Trends between Middle School and College Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17881

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