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It’s All About the Feels: How and Why Students’ Feelings about their Engineering Program Change

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2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


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Publication Date

June 22, 2020

Start Date

June 22, 2020

End Date

June 26, 2021

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Major Choice

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Laura Hirshfield University of Michigan

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Laura Hirshfield is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Michigan. She received her B.S. from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. from Purdue University, both in chemical engineering. She then transitioned into the engineering education field with postdoctoral positions at Oregon State University, Olin College of Engineering and University of Michigan. Her research interests lie in assessing and amending curricula to help students transition from undergraduate to professional practice.

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Stacie Edington University of Michigan

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Stacie Edington is the Director of Honors and Engagement Programs within the University of Michigan, College of Engineering. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of Michigan and her Master of Science in Executive Leadership from the University of San Diego.

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Michael Dailey University of Michigan

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Mike serves as the Assistant Director for the Engineering Honors and Engagement Programs Office, which houses the Common Reading Experience for the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan.

Mike earned his BBA in Management from Eastern Michigan University. He also earned a Graduate Certificate in Academic Advising and Masters of Arts in Higher Education Administration from Sam Houston State University.

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This complete research paper presents a cross-sectional qualitative study investigating how first-year students feel starting their first semester in an undergraduate engineering program, and how this compares to their feelings soon after starting college and later in their engineering program.  We compare survey responses from one month before first-year students start the program, to data gathered in focus groups with first-year students after the start of the program, to feedback from focus groups with upper-level students, to determine how and why their feelings about the program change. 

There are numerous factors that can impact student success in an engineering program: motivation, preparedness, sense of belonging, confidence, self-efficacy, support [1], [2]. One of the most fundamental aspects that can impact a student’s place in an engineering program is how they feel about being an engineering student. A students’ feelings about their program both impact and relate to many other aspects of their experience more broadly [3]: for example, a student who feels excited to start as an engineering student, is more likely to engage and persist compared to a student who enters the program feeling anxious or ambivalent. Furthermore, a student’s feelings about their place in an engineering program have the potential to change quickly and be impacted by multiple factors. Therefore, it is important to have an understanding of what those factors might be in order to best support our students’ success and perseverance.  

This study is part of a larger study investigating the impact of a first-year program on students’ sense of community, sense of belonging, and perceptions of engineering. As part of that study, all first-year students starting in an engineering program at a large, Midwestern university were invited to complete surveys at the beginning of the summer (n=731), in the middle of the summer (n=1171), and during the fall semester (n=1128), and a subset of students participated in focus groups (n=60) (during the fall semester) focusing on those topics. In the study presented in this paper, the focus will be on data collected during the mid-summer survey and the mid-semester focus groups. 

In the mid-summer survey, students were asked to fill in the blank in the statement “I am ___ to be an [engineer at this university].” The majority of students used positive words (“excited”, “honored”, “grateful”, etc.). Students also used neutral words (“about”, “going”) or phrases that mixed positive and negative emotions (“excited and nervous”). 2% of students used words with more negative connotations, such as “anxious” or “uninspired”. 

After the students arrived on campus and participated in a first-year program of interest, they were invited to participate in a focus group. Focus groups were also held with upper-level (junior and senior) students to assess the longevity of the impact of the first-year program. In these focus groups, students discussed their feelings upon being accepted to the university, upon starting at the university, and their most recent feelings about being a student at the university and in the engineering program. The findings from this portion of the study were then considered in the context of the survey responses, in order to illuminate how students’ feelings about being an engineering student might change from before they start an engineering program, to one to two months into the program, and one to two years into the program. 

[1] E. National Academies of Sciences and Medicine, Supporting students’ college success: The role of assessment of intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies. National Academies Press, 2017. [2] E. T. Pascarella and P. T. Terenzini, How College Affects Students: A Third Decade of Research. ERIC, 2005. [3] M. Weber, L. Wagner, and W. Ruch, “Positive feelings at school: On the relationships between students’ character strengths, school-related affect, and school functioning,” J. Happiness Stud., vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 341–355, 2016.

Hirshfield, L., & Edington, S., & Dailey, M. (2020, June), It’s All About the Feels: How and Why Students’ Feelings about their Engineering Program Change Paper presented at 2020 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual On line . 10.18260/1-2--34888

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