Asee peer logo

Investigating Student Perceptions of an Engineering Department’s Climate: The Role of Peer Relations

Download Paper |


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

Understanding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion from Students' Perspectives

Tagged Topics

Diversity and ASEE Diversity Committee

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Susannah C. Davis Oregon State University Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Susannah C. Davis is a postdoctoral research associate in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at Oregon State University. She received her Ph.D. and M.Ed. from the University of Washington, and her B.A. from Smith College. She is currently working on the NSF-funded REvolutionizing engineering and computer science Departments (RED) project at OSU. Her research focuses on organizational learning and change, particularly in higher education; learning in the workplace; curricular and pedagogical development; and the preparation of professionals for social justice goals.

visit author page

author page

Naeun Cheon University of Washington

author page

Elba Camila Moise University of Washington


Susan Bobbitt Nolen University of Washington Orcid 16x16

visit author page

Professor of Learning Sciences & Human Development

visit author page

Download Paper |


Investigating Student Perceptions of an Engineering Department’s Climate: The Role of Peer Relations

Diversity in engineering remains low despite decades of rhetoric and efforts to broaden participation and retention. Historically underrepresented groups, particularly women and people of color, enter engineering at lower rates and leave at substantially higher rates (Hurtado, Eagan & Chang, 2010). Previous explanations have included the “chilly climate” members of these groups find in engineering (Walton, Peach, Logel, Spencer & Zanna, 2015), but the role of peers in this dynamic is less well understood. To address this, we investigated how climate perceptions and peer relations contributed to the prediction of persistence and identification with engineering. Undergraduate engineering students (n=279) from a large public university participated anonymously in an online climate survey. Scales included Engineering Identity, Engineering Persistence, Peer Relations, and Faculty Support. Perceptions of welcoming (vs. hostile) climate for each of 14 different identity groups were individually assessed, resulting in scales for dominant (US-born, Male) and non-dominant (all other identities) reference groups. Additionally, students answered two open-ended questions: (1) If you could change one thing about [program name], what would it be?; and (2) What is the best thing about being a [program name] student?

A 2 (Reference Group) x 2(Gender) x 2 (White vs Student of Color) ANOVA found all groups perceived the engineering program to be more welcoming for dominant than non-dominant identity groups (p<001.). Multiple regression found Peer Relations (including academic and social relations) was an important mediator of the effects of climate for non-dominant groups, gender and faculty support on student persistence (8% of variance) and identity as engineers (20%). Tests of competing models showed that Faculty Support did not function as a mediator for any of the variables. Race had a significant independent effect on both Engineering Identity and Persistence.

Analysis of the open-ended items also highlighted the importance of peer relations and provided more information about aspects of peer relations valued by students. 25.7% of respondents named peer relations as the best thing about being a student in the program. Typical responses spoke of peers helping develop a “sense of comraderie” and “supportive community” where “everyone is willing to help each other out, whether it’s homework or studying.” Several responses also mentioned working in course-based groups, teams, or study groups as the best thing about being a student in the program.

Taken together, these results suggest peer relations is an important aspect of social climate that predicts both persistence in the major and identification with engineering. Although climate was rated less welcoming for non-dominant than dominant groups, its effects on these outcomes was mediated by academic and social relationships with peers. That it also mediated the effects of faculty support and gender suggests that efforts to improve peer relations may be a key part of an overall program to increase retention and identification among non-dominant students. Alternately, peer relations may be a particularly salient contributor to determining climate perceptions. Efforts to improve the departmental climate for non-dominant groups, with a focus on peer relationships, may positively impact engineering identity and persistence.

Davis, S. C., & Cheon, N., & Moise, E. C., & Nolen, S. B. (2018, June), Investigating Student Perceptions of an Engineering Department’s Climate: The Role of Peer Relations Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30723

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: © 2018 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