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Intervention designed to increase interest in engineering for low-interest, K-12 girls did so for boys and girls

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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

Women in Engineering Technical Session

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

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Samuel Alberto Acuna University of Wisconsin - Madison

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Samuel Acuña is Ph.D. candidate in the Mechanical Engineering department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he studies neuromuscular biomechanics. He aims to improve gait and balance in older adults by developing technology that influences the nervous system. Samuel received his BS in Mechanical Engineering from Brigham Young University in 2012, and his MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2015.

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Joseph E Michaelis University of Wisconsin - Madison

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Joseph E Michaelis is a Ph.D. student in Educational Psychology in the Learning Sciences area at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. His research involves studying interest in STEM education, focusing on the impact of learning environments, feedback, and influence of social constructs and identities. This research includes developing inclusive learning environments that promote interest in pursuing STEM fields as a career to a broad range of students.

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Joshua Daniel Roth University of Wisconsin-Madison


Joseph Towles University of Wisconsin, Madison

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Joseph Towles is a Lecturer jointly appointed in the Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering Departments at Stanford University. Joe completed his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford. Joe also completed a research post-doctoral fellowship in the Sensory Motor Performance Program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and in the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Department at Northwestern University. His teaching interests are in the areas of solid mechanics, biomechanics, dynamic systems and controls, and engineering design. Joe's scholarship interests are in the areas of engineering education and neuromuscular biomechanics. Specifically, Joe's engineering education activities include student-centric course and curricular development; assessment of student learning & engagement; and innovation in approaches to enhance student learning. In neuromuscular biomechanics, Joe’s interests are in translational studies aimed at elucidating the mechanics and control of the hand following neurologic and musculoskeletal injury with the goal of developing innovative rehabilitative and surgical interventions that improve grasp function.

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Engineering remains a field with disproportionately low representation of women and individuals from underrepresented minority (URM) groups. As early as middle school, these groups start losing interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields (National Science Foundation, 2004; Driver, 1985). Thus, early interventions that spark interest and encourage pursuit of STEM areas are greatly needed. Biomechanics is a highly relatable, interdisciplinary field with ties to engineering, medicine, and athletics. Our previous studies at a college-wide engineering outreach event (Francis et al., 2016; Michaelis et al., 2017) have demonstrated the potential for hands-on, biomechanics-based activities to teach engineering principles to K-12 students. Our most recent study (Michaelis et al., 2017) indicated that boys have a higher interest in engineering than girls. This study also showed that biomechanics-based activities could increase general interest in engineering, regardless of initial interest, even to the point of positively impacting students’ consideration of careers in engineering. Of note, when both boys and girls had little to no interest in engineering, the boys were more easily drawn in by the outreach activities than the girls. The latter may be a reflection of intrinsic differences (e.g., gender stereotypes (Bieg et al., 2015), psychological factors (Stoet et al., 2016)) between boys and girls that are more pronounced at low individual-interest levels. The primary goals of the current study were to (1) determine whether our biomechanics-based activities were similarly impactful as in previous years, and (2) investigate the impact of an intervention targeted at increasing interest in low-interest girls at a college-wide engineering outreach event.


Protocol We surveyed students attending an engineering outreach event before and after participating in up to ten interactive biomechanics activities. The biomechanics activities and the design of the surveys used were similar to that in our previous studies (Francis et al., 2016; Michaelis et al., 2017).

Six activities from the previous studies were used in this study. They were as follows: (1) measurement of maximum jump height using a Microsoft Kinect system (Microsoft, Redmond, WA) for comparison to professional athletes and animals; (2) measurement of walking characteristics using Wii Balance Boards (Nintendo; Redmond, WA); (3) measurement of muscle activity using surface electrodes (Back Yard Brains; Ann Arbor, MI); (4) investigating object properties in a virtual reality (VR) environment using a haptic robot and VR system; (5) investigating human walking patterns using a computer simulation of gait (BioMotion Laboratory, Queens University; Kingston, Ontario, Canada); (6) measurement of basketball dribbling characteristics with a smart basketball (InfoMotion Sports Technology; Dublin, OH). Four new activities were: (1) exploring compression in materials; (2) investigating anatomical features of lower extremity bones; (3) design of an ankle-foot orthosis; and (4) learning about the scientific contributions of university researchers in an engineering trivia game.

The engineering trivia game was specifically designed to increase engineering interest for girls with little to no initial interest in engineering. We targeted personal values: girls may view engineering more favorably if they see it (1) as a field that helps people (Jones et al., 2000, Weisgram and Bigler, 2006), and (2) as a field in which women have made significant contributions (Buck et al., 2008). The game showcased engineering and scientific contributions related to biomechanics. The names and faces of male and female engineers were displayed and the students had to match the engineers with their respective contributions. There were two versions of the game: for half the time, the game featured female engineers and emphasized how their contributions helped society (female-accomplishment intervention); for the other half, the game featured male engineers and emphasized the technological feat of their solution (male-accomplishment intervention). The female-accomplishment intervention was facilitated by a woman, and the male-accomplishment intervention was facilitated by a man.

Each student was asked to complete both a six-question pre-participation and ten-question post-participation survey. As in our previous work, the pre- and post-surveys were designed to measure individual (items #1-5 on pre-survey) and situational (items #1-3 & 5-7 on post-survey) interests in sub-sets of students self-identified by gender, grade level, ethnicity and initial interest in engineering using a 7-point Likert scale (1: strongly disagree; 7: strongly agree). Pre-participation questions were printed on one side of a piece of paper; post-participation questions were printed on the reverse.

Data Analyses Individual interest scores were calculated by averaging the five individual interest items on the pre-survey questionnaire. Situational interest scores were calculated by finding the average of the six situational interest items on the post-survey questionnaire. Interest in an engineering career was assessed based on items #6 and #4 on the pre- and post-survey questionnaires, respectively. The threshold for low and high levels of interest were determined by the range of values less than and greater than the mean for that interest.

An ANOVA test (alpha < 0.05), conducted using R, was used to compare individual and situational interest levels pre- and post- and as functions of demographic factors. Where appropriate, t-tests (alpha < 0.05) were used as post-hoc tests when significant effects were identified in the ANOVA test.


Over two-days, we collected 701 completed pre- and post-participation surveys (93% of total) from students. Of these 701 participants, 44% were girls, and 22% were members of an URM group.

Many of the findings in this study were similar to those in our previous studies (Francis et al., 2016; Michaelis et al., 2017). For example, after participating in the outreach activity, the number of boys and girls who indicated they would pursue a career in engineering increased significantly (i.e., compare 4.42 (1.94) pre to 4.77 (1.86) post; p<0.001). We also found that boys and girls with high individual interest experienced a greater level of situational interest than those with low individual interest (i.e., compare 6.01 (0.89) to 4.98 (1.21); p<0.05). In general, situational interest was greater for boys than for girls (p<0.001).

In this study, we additionally found that the 195 participants on the second day of the outreach activity had higher individual interest than the 506 participants on the first day (i.e., compare 4.13 (1.28) on day 1 to 4.49 (1.39) on day 2; p < 0.001). We also found an effect due to ethnicity. In general, situational interest was greater for Asian/Pacific Islander than for White, Latino and African-American participants (p<0.05). Situational interest was also greater in elementary school-aged students as compared to middle school-aged students (p<0.05).

Specific to the intervention designed to increase interest in engineering in girls with little to no interest, we found that the female-accomplishment intervention had no effect on participants while the male-accomplishment intervention increased situational interest levels in both boys and girls (p=0.015). There was no significant interaction of gender within the intervention (p = 0.07).


The primary goals of the current study were to (1) determine whether our biomechanics-based activities were similarly impactful as in previous years, and (2) investigate the impact of an intervention targeted at increasing interest in low-interest girls at a college-wide engineering outreach event. The first key finding was that our biomechanics-based activities were similarly impactful as in previous years. The second key finding was that our male-accomplishment intervention positively impacted both boys and girls, while the female-accomplishment intervention did not positively impact girls as it was designed.

The first key finding that our biomechanics-based activities continued to positively impact both situational and career interests highlights the potential for utilizing biomechanics as a tool to improve engineering interest in K-12 students regardless of their initial interest. This is the second consecutive year that we have shown increases in students’ interest in engineering following our activities, which indicates that our activities as a whole are robust. This might be because biomechanics is a highly relatable, interdisciplinary field with ties to engineering, medicine, and athletics, and thus draws in more students than another, less relatable engineering discipline. Therefore, future outreach and K-12 activities designed to increase interest in engineering should consider using biomechanics-based activities.

The second key finding was that our male-accomplishment intervention positively impacted both boys and girls, while the female-accomplishment intervention did not have a positive impact, even for girls, as it was designed. While it is positive that one of our interventions did positively impact students that participated, the primary goal was to increase the interest in engineering of low-interest girls by challenging gender stereotypes about women in science. Our hypothesis was that a female-focused intervention would have the greatest impact on low-interest girls; however, we found that only the male-accomplishment intervention had an impact on our participants’ situational interest. Thus, assuming that the facilitators were given the same instructions and led the interventions in the same way, then the female-accomplishments activity as designed was not the best way to inspire low-interest girls to achieve similar interests in engineering as boys. However, it was surprising that the male-accomplishment intervention was correlated with higher situational interest scores for the girls.

There are several possible explanations about why the gender-focused intervention failed to preferentially increase K-12 girls’ interest in engineering. One is that the bias that men are innovators was not overcome through our appeal to the girls’ personal values (Dasgupta 2014). Another is that the simple design of the activity (e.g., simply including a female engineer’s name and picture) was not enough to engage a meaningful connection with the young girls. Research into the cognitive processes of adolescent girls suggest that their initial image of female role models was that they could not have a connection with them (Buck, 2008). Research suggests that, more than gender, these role models are effective when they are more non-stereotypical role models (Cheryan et al., 2011). Future work should focus more on the “non-science nerd” nature of the role model (e.g. highlighting their non-professional interests and accomplishments).

Our study does have limitations. First, the interaction between the gender of the facilitator and the gender-focus of the intervention (i.e., male facilitator leading a female-focused intervention) was not explored. Future work to improve upon our activity to target specific gender groups should consider all possible interactions. Second, we did not control for the order in which students completed the activities. Thus, the impact of our gender-focused intervention could have been different if the students completed it before or after other activities. Third, we did not assess the long-term effects of our activity to determine whether the increased interest in engineering stayed with these students. Future work will focus on more targeted outreach events with smaller groups of students, which would make long-term follow-ups and repeated interventions possible.

In conclusion, we have shown for two straight years that biomechanics-based activities can increase K-12 student’s interest in engineering. There is still a need for targeted activities to increase girls’ interest in engineering to match that of boys. Our continued motivation to improve these biomechanics activities is provided by our desired to build an online repository of biomechanics activities that are well-tested, education standards-compliant, and both educational and inspirational to a diverse group of students.


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Acuna, S. A., & Michaelis, J. E., & Roth, J. D., & Towles, J. (2018, June), Intervention designed to increase interest in engineering for low-interest, K-12 girls did so for boys and girls Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30713

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