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Promoting First-Semester Persistence of Engineering Majors with Design Experiences in General Chemistry Laboratory

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2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity)


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

February 20, 2022

Start Date

February 20, 2022

End Date

July 20, 2022

Conference Session

Technical Session 13 - Paper 4: Promoting First-Semester Persistence of Engineering Majors with Design Experiences in General Chemistry Laboratory

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Diversity and CoNECD Paper Sessions

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Corey Payne University of Florida


Kent J. Crippen University of Florida Orcid 16x16

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Kent Crippen is a Professor of STEM education in the School of Teaching and Learning at the University of Florida and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His research involves the design, development, and evaluation of STEM cyberlearning environments as well as scientist-teacher forms of professional development. Operating from a design-based research perspective, this work focuses on using innovative, iterative and theoretically grounded design for the dual purpose of addressing contemporary, complex, in situ learning problems while concurrently generating new theoretical insight related to the process of learning and the relationships among the people, tools and context of the problem space.

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Promoting First-Semester Persistence of Engineering Majors with Design Experiences in General Chemistry Laboratory

Keywords: Undergraduate, Gender, Race/Ethnicity, Engineering

In an effort to address the persistence of undergraduate engineering students taking general chemistry, typically a prerequisite course during the first two-years on campus, we have created a career-forward laboratory curriculum. This curriculum involves student teams completing Design Challenges, which translate chemistry concepts such as specific heat capacity, solubility, and reaction kinetics into situated problems that are unique to the practice of professional engineers. In addition to contextualizing science and engineering as real world applications, our approach forecasts the professional practice of various types of engineering careers. This approach allows first- and second-year students to experience the work of a professional engineer in a developmentally appropriate form as a means of learning the domain of chemistry. Special consideration has also been given to designing for populations sensitive to cultural and institutional issues, which include using universal/global engineering issues in lieu of engineering problems and formalized collaboration.

This paper reports on a field study assessing self-efficacy (for engineering and for teamwork) and identity as an engineer as mediating variables to the outcome of commitment to an engineering career across one-semester for two-groups. The comparison condition was a more typical chemistry inquiry curriculum that was operationalized as business-as-usual (BAU). Specifically, we asked, what impact does use of the career-forward curriculum have on self-efficacy, identity as an engineer and commitment to an engineering career, and in particular, for students identifying as female or as a member of an underrepresented ethnic minority (URM)?

As a course-based professional experience, we view the career-forward curriculum as a form of research experience, which is consistent with the Mediation Model for Research Experiences (MMRE), the theoretical framework. This model suggests that the relationship between the student’s experience and their long-term commitment to pursuing an engineering career is mediated by the interaction between their self-efficacy and identity as an engineer. Accordingly, content specific self-efficacy, such as for science or engineering, is a strong predictor of achievement for undergraduate students, predicting interest, achievement and persistence for engineering majors. For URM students, a lack of this form of efficacy has been shown to foreshadow a change of majors. Teamwork self-efficacy represents the assumed need for confidence in one’s collaboration abilities when working in design teams. Identity as an engineer, which encompasses a student’s sense of fit within the engineering community, is emerging as an important indicator of persistence. Increasing URM students’ propensity to feel, think, and behave as a practicing engineer will promote the likelihood of their internalizing positive and productive beliefs about both the domain, their identity as such a person, and their participation in an engineering career.

This quasi-experimental study involved a comparison across two-conditions at two-points across one-semester. Data was collected using a survey instrument that was validated for use with the MMRE. The research question was addressed with one-way multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA). When disaggregating the groups by gender and URM status, one-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used because the bivariate correlations among constructs were low (<0.2). The participant pool was a convenience sample of 169 undergraduate students who elected to take a lecture course titled General Chemistry for Engineers during the Fall semester at a large public research university in the southern United States and provided informed consent for the research. In parallel and without prior knowledge, participants self-enrolled in a laboratory course where two-sections represented our comparison and intervention conditions, one using the BAU laboratory curriculum or the second using the career-forward curriculum. URM status was determined based upon self-identification using the ethnic groups defined by the National Science Foundation.

Results for the entire sample indicated no significant difference by condition for any of the four-tested variables (F(3, 164)= 2.101, p=0.101 Wilk's Λ = 0.963, partial η2 = .037) as well as when disaggregated by gender (F(4,72)= 0.488, p=0.744 Wilk's Λ = 0.974, partial η2 = .026). In general, and for our female identifying participants specifically, any impact due to the different forms of curriculum on persistence and commitment was not distinguishable. However, differences were detected when the data was disaggregated by URM status, indicating a significant positive difference for Engineering self-efficacy with a medium positive effect (F(1,50)= 5.784, p= 0.020, η2 = 0.104) and large negative effect for commitment to an engineering career (F(1,50)= 40.764, p= 0.000, η2 = 0.449). This suggests that even as students who identify as URM increase their confidence in their ability to complete engineering tasks they actually become less committed to an engineering career. However, no significant difference was found for identity as an engineer (F(1,50)= 0.867, p= 0.356, η2 = 0.017) or teamwork self-efficacy (F(1,50)= 2.340, p= 0.132, η2 = .044). These results suggest that in general, participants using the career-forward curriculum are achieving the same level of decline in persistence as their BAU peers, which is consistent with trends described in the literature. However, for URM participants, the career-forward experience results in a small/medium positive effect that is specific to Engineering self-efficacy, an encouraging result.

The decrease in commitment to an engineering career for URM students suggests that some aspect of the curriculum is likely causing issues. Considering the positive trend for Engineering Self Efficacy among this group, indicative of increased confidence for doing engineering, this is an especially intriguing and concerning result, which may be related to stereotype threat where our focus on career practices causes URM students to project negative feelings or experiences forward into their career. These findings merit further study.

Payne, C., & Crippen, K. J. (2022, February), Promoting First-Semester Persistence of Engineering Majors with Design Experiences in General Chemistry Laboratory Paper presented at 2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity) , New Orleans, Louisiana.

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