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First year engineering students are strikingly impoverished in their self-concept as professional engineers

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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

FPD IV: Improving Student Success: Mentoring, Intervening, and Supplementing

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.718.1 - 22.718.11



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Paper Authors


Frederick L. Smyth University of Virginia

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Fred is Co-Principal Investigator and Director of The Full Potential Initiative, an NSF-funded longitudinal study of the development and influence of implicit attitudes about intellectual ability and academic belonging. His findings have demonstrated that biased implicit associations in the minds of students, teachers and professionals are not simple functions of the stereotypes in their environment, but vary predictably with their personal experiences and identities. Female and male scientists, for example, differ greatly in the strength of their implicit stereotype of science as male (weak stereotyping among the women but strong among the men), even though they are both equally aware of the cultural stereotype. A key ongoing focus of his research is on the causal role that such varying implicit associations may play in shaping identities and contributing to perseverance in scientific studies and careers. Fred's publication topics have included comparisons of web- and laboratory-based implicit cognition experiments, the relationship between implicit and explicit attitude measures, ethnic and gender differences in science graduation at selective colleges, and standardized testing in college admission.

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William H Guilford University of Virginia Orcid 16x16

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Will Guilford is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Virginia, and the current Undergraduate Program Director. He received his B.S. in Biology and Chemistry from St. Francis College in Ft. Wayne, Indiana and his Ph.D. in Physiology from the University of Arizona. Will did his postdoctoral training in Molecular Biophysics at the University of Vermont under David Warshaw. His research interests include the molecular mechanisms of cell movement and muscle contraction, and effective and efficient means for education.

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Brian A. Nosek University of Virginia

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Gender differences, explicit and implicit, characterize the goals, self-concepts, stereotypes, and perceptions of discrimination of first-year engineering students.Despite decades of gender-gap-closing in science and math achievement, computer science andengineering remain disproportionately male at the collegiate level. Overt barriers to women’sparticipation in these fields are widely considered a thing of the past, but recent evidencesuggests that unconscious, or implicit, mindsets may continue to exert a toll. One’s implicitattitudes, stereotypes and self-concepts with respect to STEM may differ from those one self-reports. Implicit cognition, operating without conscious awareness or control, has been foundrelated to academic choices and performance independent of comparable self-reported mindsets(explicit cognition). Understanding the development and influence of both explicit and implicitmindsets about STEM should help explain the different gender patterns in selecting andpersisting in engineering majors and careers.In a study of first-semester engineering students in 5 sections of an “introduction to engineering”course (N=187), we examined explicit and implicit mindsets about STEM performance, choiceof engineering major, STEM career intentions, and the role of gender. Our primary measure ofimplicit cognition was the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which has strong psychometricproperties and has been shown to be a reliable independent predictor of math and sciencebehaviors.Results indicate that even among this highly science-engaged sample, men and women differsignificantly in their interests, self-concepts and skill assessments. As expected for engineeringstudents, these women implicitly associated the self with math more strongly than with languagearts, yet men’s implicit math self-concept was significantly stronger, by d = .31. Women andmen did not differ in the strength of their self-reported association of engineering with malesversus females. Implicitly, however, men strongly associated both math and science with male,while women did not differentially associate these domains with either gender. In the first week,men reported significantly greater liking than women did of building things (d = .43), confidencein their computer-based problem-solving ability (d = .40), and scored higher on the realistic“doing of things” dimension of vocational interest (d = .70). Women were higher than men inself-assessments of creativity (d = .35) and on the “social” dimension of vocational interest (d =.86). When asked about possible causes of the dearth of women among top university sciencefaculty, women rated more strongly than men the importance of discrimination in hiring andpromotion, whether conscious or unconscious. Finally, at semester’s end, women were alsomore likely than men (30% vs. 8%; d = .48) to report that gender stereotypes hurt their ownperformance in the introduction to engineering course. Of note, women’s ratings of these lattertwo items were uncorrelated (r = .01); that is, the early semester beliefs about the general effectsof discrimination were not related to end-of-semester beliefs about gender stereotypes affectingpersonal performance.Taken together, these findings make clear that women and men beginning engineering educationhave substantially different mindsets with respect to interests, goals, self-concepts, stereotypesand perceptions of the environment. Studying the downstream effects of implicit associationsmay help account for the decline of women’s participation in engineering across the academiccareer span.

Smyth, F. L., & Guilford, W. H., & Nosek, B. A. (2011, June), First year engineering students are strikingly impoverished in their self-concept as professional engineers Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--17999

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