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Motivation Makes a Difference, but is there a Difference in Motivation? What Inspires Women and Men to Study Engineering?

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2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Vancouver, BC

Publication Date

June 26, 2011

Start Date

June 26, 2011

End Date

June 29, 2011



Conference Session

Myths About Gender and Race

Tagged Divisions

Minorities in Engineering, Liberal Education/Engineering & Society, and Women in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

22.1081.1 - 22.1081.13



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Paper Authors


Deborah Kilgore University of Washington

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Deborah Kilgore is a Research Scientist in the Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching at the University of Washington. She has extensive expertise in the learning sciences and qualitative methodologies, and has a particular interest in the experiences of women in engineering.

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Sheri Sheppard Stanford University

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Sheri D. Sheppard, Ph.D., P.E., is professor of Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. Besides teaching both undergraduate and graduate design-related classes, she conducts research on fracture mechanics and applied finite element analysis, and on how people become engineers. From 1999 - 2008 she was the Senior Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching principally responsible for the Preparations for the Professions Program (PPP) engineering study, the results of which are contained in the report Educating Engineers: Designing for the Future of the Field. From 2003 - 2009 was co-principal investigator on a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to form the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE), leading the Academic Pathways Study (APS). Sheri is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE). Before coming to Stanford University, she held several positions in the automotive industry, including senior research engineer at Ford Motor Company's Scientific Research Lab. Dr. Sheppard’s graduate work was done at the University of Michigan.

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Cynthia J. Atman University of Washington

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Cynthia J. Atman is a Professor in Human-Centered Design & Engineering, founding Director of the Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching (CELT), Director of the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education (CAEE) and the inaugural holder of the Mitchell T. & Lella Blanche Bowie Endowed Chair at the University of Washington. She earned her doctorate in engineering and public policy from Carnegie Mellon University and joined the UW in 1998 after seven years on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research focuses on engineering design learning and students as emerging engineering professionals. She is a fellow of AAAS and ASEE, was the 2002 recipient of the ASEE Chester F. Carlson Award for Innovation in Engineering Education, and received the 2009 David B. Thorud Leadership Award, which is given to a UW faculty or staff for demonstrating leadership, innovation, and teamwork.

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Debbie Chachra Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering

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Debbie Chachra is an Associate Professor of Materials Science at Olin College, where she has been involved in the development and evolution of the engineering curriculum since she joined the faculty in 2003. Her current research interests are twofold: as well as her research in biological materials (currently focused on bioderived plastics synthesized by bees), she also researches the engineering student experience, including persistence and migration, differences by gender, and the role of self-efficacy in project-based learning. In 2010, she received an NSF CAREER Award in support of her research on engineering education.

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Motivation makes a difference, but is there a difference in motivation? What inspires men and women to study engineering?Despite years of research and intervention, women continue to be underrepresented inengineering. Many scholars have pointed to differences in the ways men and women experiencetheir undergraduate education to suggest potential remedies. Yet it has become increasinglycertain that once women decide to become engineers, they are no more likely to leave than men,regardless of challenges faced in college. Indeed, engineering majors overall are more likely topersist than students in most other majors.How do we attract more women to engineering, or anyone for that matter? “It is important toremember that students are driven by passion, curiosity, engagement, and dreams,” Charles Vest,president of NAE, wrote. To address these questions, we examine engineering students’motivations to study engineering. Data were gathered as part of the Academic Pathways Study(APS), an extensive mixed-methods study of undergraduate engineering students’ experience. In-depth qualitative and quantitative data were gathered longitudinally from students at fourinstitutions, and cross-sectional survey data were gathered from a broad national student sampleto affirm certain aspects of engineering students’ experiences and perspectives, including studentmotivation. A selection of qualitative and quantitative findings will be included in this paper.Our findings reveal that there are some gender differences in motivation to study engineering,but there are also strong similarities. Intrinsic motivations – both the joys of doing and beingengineers – are strong for all students. The opportunity to make a positive difference in the worldis also a strong factor, followed by the promise of a financially rewarding career. Of much lesssignificance to both men and women are the influences of mentors and parents. Thesesimilarities stand in contrast to common perceptions that the ideal of service for the commongood is the domain of women, or that it is more often men who enjoy the rigorous study ofengineering.Though both men and women are strongly motivated to do the hands-on work they perceiveengineering to involve, this element of engineering appeared to have a greater influence on men.An engineering education introduces students to a broad array of activities, yet those who areless motivated by hands-on work appear to find other ways to engage and persist. Prior tocollege, however, students with a distinct impression of engineering may not realize the extent ofopportunities available.Women reported a greater influence from mentors than men. However, as noted above, mentormotivation appears to play a modest role in motivating all students. With regard to recruiting, itmay be that mentors simply aren’t there for girls and boys who are planning for college. A morepositive interpretation is that mentors exist, but serve as the “guides on the side” who introducestudents to activities and ideas that serve as key intrinsic motivators.In this paper, we will elaborate on these gender differences, but also discuss similarities in whatmotivates men and women and implications. Understanding motivation to study engineeringshould provide engineering educators with further insight into attracting a diverse and vibrantstudent body.

Kilgore, D., & Sheppard, S., & Atman, C. J., & Chachra, D. (2011, June), Motivation Makes a Difference, but is there a Difference in Motivation? What Inspires Women and Men to Study Engineering? Paper presented at 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver, BC. 10.18260/1-2--18816

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: © 2011 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