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Predicting Interest in Engineering Majors: The Role of Critical Agency and Career Goals

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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

Motivation, Goal Orientation, Identity, and Career Aspirations

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

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Paper Authors


Heather Perkins Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Heather entered the Applied Social and Community Psychology program in the fall of 2014, after completing her Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Cincinnati. In Spring 2021, she defended her dissertation and began a post-doctoral research position at Purdue University. She has participated in various research projects examining the interaction between stereotypes and science interest and confidence, their influence upon womens’ performance in school and the workplace, and their presence in the media and consequences for viewers. Her primary research interest is science identity, STEM education, and participation in online communities.

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Brianna Shani Benedict Purdue University, West Lafayette

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Brianna Benedict is a Ph.D. Candidate in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s of Science in Industrial and Systems Engineering from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Her research focuses on understanding how hybrid spaces influence engineering students’ identity development, belonging, and agency in interdisciplinary engineering education. She co-leads the CDEI virtual workshop team focused on building a community of educators passionate about expanding their knowledge concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion in engineering education. Her most recent accomplishment was being recognized as one of seven AAC&U 2019 K. Patricia Cross Scholars based on her commitment to teaching and learning and civic engagement.

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Herman Ronald Clements III Purdue University, West Lafayette

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H. Ronald Clements is a postbaccalaureate research assistant in the STRIDE lab at Purdue University and an incumbent graduate student for the 2020-2021 year. He works on the project titled “CAREER: Actualizing Latent Diversity: Building Innovation through Engineering Students’ Identity Development,” assisting with narrative analysis and interviews, helping to understand the identity trajectories of latently diverse students.
He received his Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Harding University with honors, where he participated in the Beyond Professional Identity (BPI) research group, studying frustration in first- and second-year undergraduate engineering students. He also served as the BPI lab manager during 2017-2018. He is also a Society of Personality and Social Psychology Undergraduate Research Fellow, through which he studied in the Stereotypes, Identity, and Belonging Lab (SIBL) at the University of Washington during the summer of 2018.

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Allison Godwin Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Allison Godwin, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Engineering Education and Chemical Engineering at Purdue University. Her research focuses what factors influence diverse students to choose engineering and stay in engineering through their careers and how different experiences within the practice and culture of engineering foster or hinder belongingness and identity development. Dr. Godwin graduated from Clemson University with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and Ph.D. in Engineering and Science Education. Her research earned her a National Science Foundation CAREER Award focused on characterizing latent diversity, which includes diverse attitudes, mindsets, and approaches to learning, to understand engineering students’ identity development. She has won several awards for her research including the 2016 American Society of Engineering Education Educational Research and Methods Division Best Paper Award and the 2018 Benjamin J. Dasher Best Paper Award for the IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference. She has also been recognized for the synergy of research and teaching as an invited participant of the 2016 National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Education Symposium and the Purdue University 2018 recipient of School of Engineering Education Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the 2018 College of Engineering Exceptional Early Career Teaching Award.

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This research paper investigates how students’ latent diversity influences students disciplinary engineering major choices. Students bring interests, beliefs, and attitudes to engineering education, and in turn, norm to expectations and identities of their fields’ ways of being, thinking, and knowing. This dialectic process does not occur equitably; as students persist, the pressure to conform leads them to either assimilate, leave engineering, or labor to pioneer new spaces. This process of alienation and assimilation is particularly problematic given engineering’s long history of racism, sexism, and classism.

Additionally, engineering is not a monolith with varying rates of participation across engineering disciplines. Each engineering discipline has a unique culture and better understanding these differences can provide useful ways to change engineering disciplines to be more inclusive. First, we can identify opportunities to nurture ways of being, thinking, and knowing that would otherwise be pushed out (forms of latent diversity that are difficult to see but foster equity and inclusion nonetheless). Second, it can allow us to better tailor courses to fit students’ interests and needs, thus increasing student belonging and innovation and adoption of new ideas. To this end, we explore two research questions: (1) Do students’ engineering beliefs, career priorities, and field interests predict interest across several disciplines of engineering?; and (2) Are the relationships between students’ beliefs and discipline interests moderated by patterns of representation and parity?

Data for this study was collected from 32 U.S. ABET accredited institutions, with a total sample size of 3,711 undergraduate engineering students. We focused on students’ career priorities (“How important are the following factors for your future career satisfaction?”), field interests (“Rate the likelihood of you choosing a career in each of the following fields?”), and engineering agency beliefs (“Engineering can improve our society” and “Engineering knowledge is for the advancement of human welfare”). Students were also asked to rate their current interest in seventeen disciplines (e.g., “biomedical engineering” and “industrial engineering”) and two additional categories (“other STEM-related” and “other non-STEM-related”).

Our factor analysis identified nine constructs among the independent variables and clustered the disciplines into six categories. Regression analysis found some consistent relationships between variables, with the clearest connections between altruistic field and biochem-related engineering discipline interests (b = .33, p < .001) and commercial field and technology discipline interests (b = .20, p < .001). When focusing on technology and biochem disciplines, fields with opposing levels of gender parity, men reported a small positive relationship between altruistic field interests and technology discipline interest (b = .06, p = .005) while women and non-binary students reported the opposite (b = -.10, p = .002).

Overall, these results suggest that there are some predictive patterns in students’ beliefs, priorities, and field interests. Most effect sizes were small to medium, with R2 values ranging from .09 to .30. Men and women/non-binary students had generally parallel relationships, suggesting that beliefs, priorities, and field interests predict discipline interests similarly across gender groups, challenging some ideas about goal congruity and motivation. Additional results and potential implications will also be discussed in the paper.

Perkins, H., & Benedict, B. S., & Clements, H. R., & Godwin, A. (2021, July), Predicting Interest in Engineering Majors: The Role of Critical Agency and Career Goals Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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