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Helping First-Year Engineering Students Select a Major

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Monday Potpourri

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Tammy VanDeGrift University of Portland

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Dr. Tammy VanDeGrift is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Portland. Her research interests include computer science education, pedagogy, and best practices for retention and engagement.

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Sherry Liao University of Portland

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A rising software engineer inspired by the ability of technology to connect the world together and make a positive impact on a global level.

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This complete evidence-based practice paper evaluates a set of resources to help first-year engineering students choose their major among four fields. Choosing a major can be a daunting task for first-year college students, especially if the choices span fields with which students have little experience. It is estimated that 20 – 50% of first-year college students enter as “undecided”, according to Gordon’s book, The undecided college student: An academic and career advising challenge. In order to provide first-year engineering students time to discern, a set of resources and course activities were designed to assist students in this decision-making process. The educational theory that serves as a framework for this study is social cognitive career theory, developed by Lent, Brown, and Hackett in 1994. In particular, resources, activities, and experiences in the introduction to engineering course were designed to assist students with self-efficacy beliefs and personal goals.

Context At this University all engineering and computer science students take an introduction to engineering course that covers the engineering process, teamwork, communication skills, the different branches of engineering, ethics, and co-curricular and extracurricular opportunities. Section sizes are ~30 students, so students can build community with peers and their professor. The professor of the intro to engineering course is assigned as the academic advisor for his/her set of students. As part of academic advising about 2/3 into the semester, the professor meets with each student individually to discuss their interests, goals, and transition to college. Students can start in the School of Engineering as General Engineering or can select one of four majors at the time of admission. Although students are coded Mechanical Engineering, for example, the professors of the course emphasize that students should consider all four majors. Students declare or confirm their major by the end of the first semester. Resources to help students choose a major include laboratories, advisor meetings, student panels, a semester-long team project, student chapters of professional society meetings, and on-line resources.

Study and Methods In the fall 2012 offering of the course, we collected paper surveys from students, asking them to rate the effectiveness of a suite of resources in helping them choose their major. We asked about exposure to engineering and/or computer science prior to entering college and the type of exposure they had. Based on the responses, we created a new set of videos featuring upper-class students who shared their journeys in how they chose their major and what they value about their major. We added a lab focusing on computer science. In fall 2015, we again collected paper surveys that asked students about the impact of all the course activities and their confidence in their major selection.

Results The professor, laboratories and the project have the most impact on helping students decide their major. Talking to other students, attending club meetings, and watching videos of other students had less impact. Based on these results, students seem to need personal, hands-on experience to determine if their self-efficacy beliefs and the values of the outcomes align with the intended major. We asked students to rate their confidence in their major by their level of agreement with the statement, “I am confident with my choice of major.” Of the 154 responses, 68 strongly agreed, 54 agreed, 21 were neutral, 8 disagreed, 1 strongly disagreed, 1 said not applicable, and 1 left the question blank. Of the course materials, the semester-long project influenced students’ major choice the most. In the 2015 offering, the projects related to accessibility and engineering and students ranked the projects according to their interests. Example projects included designing a cell phone holder for a disabled person, designing a product to alert a blind person about water/liquid temperature, and designing a drainage system for an area of campus that floods regularly after rain showers. Of the 154 responses, 100 were strongly agree, 47 were agree, 6 were neutral, and one was blank. Overall, though, the item with most impact was the role of the instructor in helping students choose their major.

This paper will describe a suite of resources and activities along with students’ evaluation of those materials in terms of discernment of their major. By disseminating the information, other universities can adopt and adapt these activities to use in their programs.

VanDeGrift, T., & Liao, S. (2017, June), Helping First-Year Engineering Students Select a Major Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28432

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: © 2017 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