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Retaining Diverse Students in Civil Engineering and its Subdisciplines: Challenges and Opportunities

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division Technical Session - Retention Programs for Diverse Students

Tagged Divisions

Minorities in Engineering and Women in Engineering

Tagged Topics

Diversity and ASEE Diversity Committee

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Paper Authors


Abbie B Liel P.E. University of Colorado, Boulder

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Dr. Abbie B. Liel is an associate professor of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Eva Leong

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Ms. Eva Leong is a Staff Engineer at Big R Bridge. She earned her M.S. degree in civil engineering at University of Colorado Boulder in 2012.

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There are many benefits to a diverse workforce of civil engineers. The representation of multiple perspectives and experiences in the workplace has been shown to enhance innovation, creativity, knowledge, and productivity. Even so, less than 15% of civil engineers are women and less than 20% are nonwhite. In contrast, women now make up over 30% of lawyers and physicians, and over 70% of psychologists. Since no evidence exists that significant gender or racial differences in math or science ability exist, discrepancies in engagement and achievement in engineering have been attributed to a range of factors including a lack of preparation and encouragement, workplace and academic cultures, and the public image of engineering.

To improve our understanding of the factors that influence diverse students’ persistence in civil engineering education and careers, this paper describes the results of a survey taken by 223 undergraduate (165) and graduate students (58) in civil engineering. The survey was designed to address the following questions: • What are the factors that affect why women and minorities choose to pursue education in civil engineering? Why do students choose to focus on structural engineering as a subdiscipline within civil engineering? • What aspects of the civil engineering curriculum and course work do students find particularly motivating and interesting? Do students feel that they have a faculty or professional mentor? Are there gendered or racial differences behind these answers? • What plans do students have for their career in structural engineering or in another field? What kind of work do they want to do? Do they plan to pursue licensure? • How do students perceive civil and structural engineering careers and their own opportunities for success in this profession? Are these perceptions different for women and minority students?

We explore both civil engineering and the subdiscipline of structural engineering because structural engineering has historically been one of the least diverse areas within the broader field of civil engineering.

Respondents were 55% male and 45% female, and 70% white. Preliminary data analyses show that students of all backgrounds choose civil engineering for the same reasons. However, there are significant differences in their university experience, in terms of their self-reported confidence, the development of social networks and mentoring relationships in engineering classes, and their interests in different aspects of the required course work, which impact career goals and expectations.

Liel, A. B., & Leong, E. (2016, June), Retaining Diverse Students in Civil Engineering and its Subdisciplines: Challenges and Opportunities Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26097

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