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Fitting In Across STEM: Comparing Science/Math and Engineering/Technology Students' Perceptions of Their Fields and Futures

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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

Motivation, Attitudes, and Beliefs

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Heather Lee Perkins North Carolina State University Orcid 16x16

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Heather entered the Applied Social and Community Psychology program in the fall of 2014, after completing her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Cincinnati. She has participated in various research projects examining the interaction between stereotypes and science interest and confidence, their influence upon womens’ performance in school and the workplace, and their presence in the media and consequences for viewers. Her primary research interest is science identity, STEM education, and participation in online communities.

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Mary Wyer

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This research paper compares engineering and technology undergraduates with their science and math counterparts, exploring the influence that perceived fit, perceptions of equality, and gender have on their intentions to pursue a STEM career. In 2010, a scale was developed to measure students’ perceived fit within STEM, and previous studies have demonstrated that it is an accurate predictor of students’ career intentions in STEM, and psychometrically valid for men and women. The current study re-analyzes the previously collected data, disaggregated by major, to analyze the differences between fields and to explore how students’ perceptions influence their belonging and career intentions. Following established conventions regarding field similarity, as well as demographic patterns of gender and representation, majors were categorized as science/math (e.g., biology, biochemistry, or statistics) or as engineering/technology (e.g., biomedical engineering, chemical engineering, or computer sciences).

The current data set (n = 1070) was collected from a national sample of STEM majors across 38 classrooms. Evenly split between men and women (48% male) and marginally diverse (68% White, 16% Asian, 7% Black, and 4% Hispanic/Latino), approximately 25% of the students surveyed were engineering/technology majors. Students were asked to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a set of ‘stereotypical’ descriptors, as applied to STEM professionals (e.g., intelligent, logical, and work-oriented) and then to themselves. The congruence (or lack thereof) between the two scores is referred to as ‘fit’ and is used as a proxy of students’ individual-level perceptions of shared similarity with scientists or engineers. Students also reported their perceptions about equality in STEM and their future STEM career intentions (e.g., whether they planned to get a degree in science or do advanced research).

Using conditional process analysis, we tested the relationship between students’ fit scores and their career intentions, as mediated by perceptions of equality in STEM and moderated by major and gender. As expected, perceptions of equality partially mediated the relationship between participants’ fit scores and their career interest scores, b = .176, t(1065) = 3.64, p < .001. It was theorized that science/math majors would have greater perceptions of equality in their field than engineering/technology majors, and this was confirmed, b = 1.15, t(1066) = 2.79, p = .005. It was also hypothesized that men’s perceptions of equality in STEM would mediate their fit/career interest relationship to a lesser extent than women, also confirmed, b = -.143, t(1065) = -2.24, p = .025.

Based on these results, messages about equality in STEM continue to be important across all STEM fields, but are particularly relevant for engineering and technology majors, in which marginalization and under-representation remain high. Furthermore, these findings indicate an alternative to skill-based interventions that focus on students’ math or spatial skills, suggesting that conveying messages of belonging and equality is another way to increase STEM interest. The implications of these findings for engineering educators and interventionists is discussed, along with recommendations for evaluating and assessing the effects of pro-diversity initiatives.

Perkins, H. L., & Wyer, M. (2018, June), Fitting In Across STEM: Comparing Science/Math and Engineering/Technology Students' Perceptions of Their Fields and Futures Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30523

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