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Keeping the 'SPARK' alive - Investigating Effective Practices in the Retention of Female Undergraduates in Engineering and Computer Science

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

NSF Grantees Poster Session II

Tagged Topics

Diversity and NSF Grantees Poster Session

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Paper Authors


Susan Mary Romanella Texas State University

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Ms. Susan Romanella is the Program Director of Texas State University’s NSF LSAMP Scholars Program. Since 2005, Ms. Romanella has developed and directed the broad scope of LSAMP program activities that target retention and degree achievement of minority and underrepresented students in STEM including mentoring and career guidance, developing cross-disciplinary projects and faculty partnerships, teaching University Seminar for engineering majors, and leading career and academic enrichment workshops. Ms. Romanella is Co-PI for the SPARK Scholars Program, an NSF S-STEM funded project to increase the recruitment and retention of female undergraduates in engineering and computer science. She also serves as the director of the Collaborative Learning Center, an academic support center for STEM majors. She is the adviser for the STEM Living and Learning Community and is the webmaster and social media director for several Texas State University websites. Ms. Romanella is committed to creating opportunities for women, men, and people of all genders and backgrounds to participate in higher education and grow the scientific and technical workforce.

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Clara Novoa Texas State University, San Marcos

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Dr. Clara Novoa is an Associate Professor at the Ingram School of Engineering at Texas State University. She has a Ph.D. in Industrial Engineering and her research areas are Dynamic and Stochastic Programming and Parallel Computing to solve mathematical optimization problems applied to logistics and supply chain. Dr. Novoa has 15 years of experience in academia and 4 years of experience in industry. Dr. Novoa is receiving funding from NSF through SPARK and Texas State STEM Rising Stars. SPARK is a four years grant that looks to increase the recruitment and retention of female in engineering, computer science, and related fields by providing scholarships for low-income and talented students. Texas State STEM Rising Stars is a four years grant committed to increase the first and second year retention and graduation rates of students in STEM. Dr. Novoa is also the advisor of the Society of Women Engineers. She is committed to research on strategies to achieve gender equity and cultural inclusiveness in science and engineering.

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SPARK is the first project at ________________University designed to recruit and retain low income, female, first year students who show an early interest in majoring in engineering and computer science (ECS). Female students who show an initial extrinsic interest in these majors can be driven away far too easily by their experiences. SPARK has two primary goals: (1) create an environment where belonging to a like-minded cohort nurtures a strong sense of self, and (2) deliver high quality, high impact practices that engender female students’ success and retention in ECS.

Guided by Albert Bandura and Frank Pajares’ research on self-efficacy in theory and practice, the SPARK project sheds light on self-efficacy and confidence as predictive of persistence for female students in ECS. Additionally, the effect of SPARK students’ spatial visualization skills was assessed and tracked throughout the life of the project, utilizing Sheryl Sorby’s research correlating spatial visualization skills to STEM success. Current research-based approaches to student engagement provide good evidence that mattering and sense of belonging are also highly correlative with persistence, particularly for first year students. This is important because the national conversation on what works to mend the gender gap in STEM is currently wedged between Sheryl Sandberg’s “leaning in” and Angela Duckworth’s views on “grit” as an indicator of persistence.

In this paper, we will discuss the context and history of the SPARK program, present assessment outcomes about impact to date, share lessons learned, and consider future directions. This work will contribute to the growing body of research on retaining females in ECS by developing and analyzing student motivation; recognizing factors that may contribute to aspirational deficient, attrition, and marginalization; and designing and assessing activities that strengthen self-confidence, self-efficacy, and persistence in retention programs for females in ECS.


Duckworth A.L., Peterson C., Matthews M.D., Kelly D.R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92(6), 1087-101.

Pajares, F. (1996). Self-efficacy beliefs in academic settings. Review of Educational Research. Winter 66(4), 543-578.

Sandberg, Sheryl (2013). Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Sander, P. and Sanders, L. (2003). Measuring confidence in academic study. Electronic Journal of Research in Educational Psychology and Psychopedagogy. 1, 1-17.

Schreiner, L., Louis, M.C, & Nelson, D.D. (Eds.) (2013).Thriving in Transitions: A Research-Based Approach to College Student Success. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina, National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition.

Sorby, S. A. (2001). A Course in Spatial Visualization and its Impact on the Retention of Women Engineering Students. Journal of Women and Minorities in Science and Engineering. 7(2), 153-172.

Romanella, S. M., & Novoa, C. (2016, June), Keeping the 'SPARK' alive - Investigating Effective Practices in the Retention of Female Undergraduates in Engineering and Computer Science Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25514

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