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Motivating Factors That Encourage Rural Students to Pursue Engineering

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Recruiting and Retention

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First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Joanne Kay Beckwith University of Michigan

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Joanne is a fifth year PhD student in the department of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan.

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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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This complete research paper will describe a qualitative study conducted at a large midwestern university exploring the motivations rural students cite as the reason they pursue engineering. Rural communities account for 21.3% of students in the United States (1), however, only 27.1% of these students will continue their education and enroll in a college or university by the time they turn 24 (1). This is well below the national average of 34.7% (1). Although there are no specific numbers available for the proportion of students from rural communities in engineering, there is evidence that suggests rural students are not pursuing engineering degrees in comparable numbers to their peers from urban or suburban communities. Case studies suggest that rural populations are underrepresented in engineering programs at institutions throughout the Midwest, with some institutions having no rural representation (2). Other recent work has investigated the impact of rurality on engineering persistence and graduation rates, with one model showing that rural students in engineering are 7% less likely to graduate than students coming from a suburban area (3). However, these studies do not tell the whole story of the experiences of rural students who enter the engineering field. Educators are aware that there are unique challenges that rural students face when transitioning to institutions of higher learning (4) such as limited advanced STEM curricula in high school, lack of engineering mentors or roles models, and lower expectations and confidence. There has also been work that suggests the reasons rural students pursue engineering is different from their urban and suburban peers (5). By digging deeper into the experiences of rural students in their first year, we can learn more about the unique challenges and motivations that rural students possess, which can help educators better support these students. The work presented here is part of a larger study exploring the experience of rural students in their first year of study as they transition into an engineering course of study at a large university. The work is guided by one research question: what factors motivate rural students to attend university and enroll in an engineering major? Using native inquiry (6), we are investigating the lived experiences of students and how rural culture influences their motivation, perceptions, and expectations in their first year of an engineering course study. To explore this research question, structured interviews were conducted with first-year students in their first semester of an engineering course of study. Seven students were interviewed in fall 2019, and currently, more are being recruited for the 2020 cohort. The interview questions have been designed to probe specific aspects of each research question and have been divided into six broad categories: descriptions of home, mentorship/relationships, expectations, transition to the university environment, identity, and choices/motivation for pursuing an engineering education. The theoretical framework of self-determination Theory will be used to analyze the data (7). Previous work has focused on the challenges that rural students encounter when starting as an engineering student; in this paper, we will focus specifically on students’ choices/motivation for pursuing engineering education, analyzing the factors that motivate rural students to pursue engineering and investigating how their rural cultural background shapes their experiences in college. We believe that by better understanding the lived experiences of rural students, instructors can have better insight into how to support them in the transition from high school to an engineering course of study.

1. Provasnik S, KewalRamani A, McLaughlin Coleman M, Gilbertson L, Herring W, Xie Q. 2007. Status of Education in Rural AmericaU.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC. 2. Versypt JJ, Ford Versypt AN. 2013. Mapping Rural Students ’ STEM Involvement : Case Studies of Chemical En- gineering Undergraduate Enrollment in the States of Illinois and Kansas Mapping Rural Students ’ STEM Involvement : Case Studies of Chemical Engineering Undergraduate Enrollment in ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings. American Society for Engineering Education, Atlanta, GA. 3. Zahedi L, Ross M, Batten J. 2019. Pathways and Outcomes of Rural Students in Engineering. 4. Ganss KM. 2016. The college transition for first-year students from rural Oregon communities. J Stud Aff Res Pract 53:269–280. 5. Felder RD, Mohr PH, Dietz EJ, Baker-Ward L. 1994. A Longitudinal Study of Engineering Student Performance and Retention II . Rural / Urban Student Differences. J Eng Educ 209–217. 6. Clandinin DJ, Rosiek J. 2012. Mapping a Landscape of Narrative Inquiry: Borderland Spaces and TensionsHandbook of Narrative Inquiry: Mapping a Methodology. 7. Deci EL, Ryan RM. 2008. Self-determination theory: A macro theory of human motivation, development, and health. Can Psychol 49:182–185.

Beckwith, J. K., & Hirshfield, L. (2021, July), Motivating Factors That Encourage Rural Students to Pursue Engineering Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--37517

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