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Health Stress and Support System Narratives of Engineering Students

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual On line

Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

Research on Engineering Ethics Education and Practice

Tagged Division

Engineering Ethics

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Paper Authors


Greg Rulifson P.E. U.S. Agency for International Development Orcid 16x16

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Greg is currently a Science and Technology Policy Fellow at USAID. Greg earned his bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering with a minor in Global Poverty and Practice from UC Berkeley where he acquired a passion for using engineering to facilitate developing communities’ capacity for success. He earned his master's degree in Structural Engineering and Risk Analysis from Stanford University. His PhD work at CU Boulder focused on how student's connections of social responsibility and engineering change throughout college as well as how engineering service is valued in employment and supported in the workplace. He taught in the Humanitarian Engineering program at the Colorado School of Mines from 2015 to 2018.

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Angela R. Bielefeldt University of Colorado Boulder

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Angela Bielefeldt is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering (CEAE) and Director for the Engineering Plus program. She has served as the Associate Chair for Undergraduate Education in the CEAE Department, as well as the ABET assessment coordinator. Professor Bielefeldt was also the faculty director of the Sustainable By Design Residential Academic Program, a living-learning community where students learned about and practice sustainability. Bielefeldt is also a licensed P.E. Professor Bielefeldt's research interests in engineering education include service-learning, sustainable engineering, social responsibility, ethics, and diversity.

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This research explored the varied health stresses of undergraduate students and the broad spectrum of resilience strategies they applied. Across the country and the world, health of college students is gaining more deserved attention. Mental and physical health shocks and stresses weigh heavily on all college students, but perhaps not any more than those in engineering programs. These majors can be worse due to the pervasive focus on high performance, even if the university offers many services. This work highlights, in their own words, the ways that undergraduate engineering students managed physical trauma in addition to other mental health stresses in their lives. The research was conducted post hoc, using transcripts from longitudinal interviews with 34 undergraduate students (13 male, 21 female). The transcripts were analyzed using emergent thematic coding. Health issues continued to emerge as important, though not an initial goal of this research design. Some students shared how they had a hard time balancing their schooling, employment, and personal life when confronted with some unexpected or additional health issue. For example, one student described her full lifestyle with work, club soccer, civil engineering degree, which was disrupted by a sprained knee. Another student had a history of depression and described how he managed engineering school until he left the university altogether. Most surprisingly, when asked at the very beginning of the interview to give an overview of the previous year, three students described how their traumatic head injury changed their following year dramatically. One even cited her concussion from athletics as one motivating reason out of engineering. The other two finished their engineering degrees. Beyond illuminating the many health stresses, this research also explored the formal and informal support systems (or lack thereof) as described by the students themselves. Some relied on official students services while others went to family and friends. Importantly, the level of care and empathy shown by professors when confronted with a shock to their students’ lives was an important element within the larger resilience strategies. The full paper will share quotes from the students and a deeper discussion of the different ways faculty and staff can be more supportive of students across the timeline of their trauma. This work can more broadly inform efforts to learn more about the health impacts on persistence and quality of life of engineering students.

Rulifson, G., & Bielefeldt, A. R. (2020, June), Health Stress and Support System Narratives of Engineering Students Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34722

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