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Retention of First-year Undergraduate Engineering Students: Role of Psychosocial Interventions Targeting First-generation College Students

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2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Seattle, Washington

Publication Date

June 14, 2015

Start Date

June 14, 2015

End Date

June 17, 2015





Conference Session

First-year Programs Division Technical Session 3: Diversity and Multicultural Influences in the First Year

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1338.1 - 26.1338.16



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Paper Authors


Jennifer Maritza Paz The University of Texas at Austin, Cockrell School of Engineering

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Jennifer Paz is a graduate student of the Department of Educational Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Texas State University in 2011. She is currently working with Dr. Mia Markey in the Biomedical Engineering Department at The University of Texas at Austin in a project aimed at improving retention rates of first-generation engineer students.

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Margo Cousins University of Texas, Austin

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Ms. Cousins oversees undergraduate and graduate academic advising at the Department Biomedical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. She directs the office in strategic academic and professional development advising, capstone projects program, industry partnerships, first-year interest groups, and other special programs.

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Cindy D. Wilson University of Texas, Austin

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Cindy Wilson is the Director of Academic Projects at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin. She has worked at UT Austin since 2000.

She holds a PhD in Higher Education Administration from UT Austin and an MA Degree from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her BA is also from Columbia.

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Mia K. Markey The University of Texas at Austin

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Dr. Mia K. Markey is a Professor of Biomedical Engineering and Engineering Foundation Endowed Faculty Fellow in Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin as well as Adjunct Professor of Imaging Physics at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. A 1994 graduate of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, Dr. Markey earned her B.S. in computational biology (1998) from Carnegie Mellon University and her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering (2002), along with a certificate in bioinformatics, from Duke University.

The mission of Dr. Markey’s Biomedical Informatics Lab is to develop decision support systems for clinical decision making and scientific discovery. For example, Prof. Markey leads a collaborative, multi-institutional team that is designing a decision support system to help breast cancer survivors understand their likely appearance changes following breast reconstruction and, therefore, enable them to choose a reconstruction strategy that will lead to maximal psychosocial adjustment.

Dr. Markey has been recognized for excellence in research and teaching with awards from organizations such as the American Medical Informatics Association, the American Society for Engineering Education, the American Cancer Society, and the Society for Women’s Health Research. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and a Senior Member of both the IEEE and the SPIE. Dr. Markey is the editor of Physics of Mammographic Imaging (Taylor and Francis, 2012). This text gives an overview on the current role and future potential of new alternatives to mammography in the context of clinical need, complementary approaches, and ongoing research.

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Retention of First-Year Undergraduate Engineering Students: Role of Psychosocial Interventions Targeting First-Generation College Students An increasing number of students are making the decision to enroll in higher educationinstitutions to obtain a four-year degree. A substantial portion of those college students do nothave a parent with a four-year degree and are considered first-generation students. First-generation students are a growing population throughout the country’s universities, whichcontributes to the diversity and overall cultural enrichment of college campuses (Engle & Tinto,2008). However, while college enrollment of first-generation students has increased, theretention rates of these students are much lower. Prior research has shown that first-generationstudents are at a disadvantage and encounter more obstacles than continuing-generation students(those with at least one parent with a four-year degree) throughout their collegiate careers. First-generation students are more likely to perform poorly and earn lower grades, thus reducing thelikelihood of obtaining a college degree and having higher dropout rates (U.S. Department ofEducation, National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2001). The obstacles that arecommonly encountered by first-generation students include economic barriers and access toresources, as well as psychological factors, such as a sense of belongingness (Harackiewicz, etal., 2013). Many educational institutions have introduced programs that provide financial andacademic resources to first-generation students in an effort to increase success and narrow theachievement gap. While these programs provide valuable resources, they do not tackle social-psychological obstacles, such as a lack of belongingness, which can reduce the effectiveness ofthese programs. Arguably, these obstacles become more salient in highly competitive fields, suchas engineering, which historically has experienced lower retention rates than other fields of study(Moller-Wong & Eide, 1997). Social-psychological interventions that improve the retention andgraduation rates of first-generation students in engineering would benefit the school as a wholeand increase the number of engineers in the workforce. The purpose of this study is to design, implement, and evaluate a flexible module ofsocial-psychological interventions into a freshman seminar course in order to improve retentionand success for first-generation college students in engineering, and evaluate the effectiveness ofthe module so as to enable future refinements. The study is being conducted in a large, urban,public research institution in the Southwest that is considered to be selective and has a mostly in-state student population. The module is based on interventions that have been demonstrated toimprove academic and psychosocial outcomes for first-generation college students in otherdisciplines at other universities. The activities of the module include the Values AffirmationIntervention (VAI), which is a writing exercise, and the Difference-Education Intervention(DEI), which is a form of a student panel. The VAI is a writing intervention technique that has been proven to promote self-integrity and self-worth, which can help with performance on perceived challenging tasks. TheVAI contains a broad list of values that are not directly related to academic performance. The 12values illustrated have been validated by past research and include the following: being good atart; creativity; relationships with family and friends; government or politics; independence;learning and gaining knowledge; athletic ability; belonging to a social group (such as yourcommunity, racial group, or school club); music; career; spiritual or religious values; and a senseof humor. Students are instructed to circle two or three values that are of personal importance,write a few sentences explaining why the chosen values are important to the participant, andindicate their agreement of several statements by using a numerical scale (Harackiewicz, et al.,2013). The DEI is composed of a diverse student panel group that answers questions regardingthe role that their social background played in the college experience of each student panelist, asa first-generation student or a continuing-generation student. This contrast between first-generation and continuing generation students’ stories provides the participants with aframework to understand the role that their own social background plays in their collegeexperience and simultaneously provides the psychological resources first-generation studentsneed to effectively transition to college and improve their academic performance (Stephens,Hamedani, & Destin, 2014). Our primary outcome measures will be overall 1st year GPA and 1st year retention inengineering for first-generation college students relative to: continuing-generation students whoalso experienced the same module; first-generation college students in sections of the freshmanseminar course in which the module wasn’t used; and first-generation college students who tookthe freshman seminar course in prior years. Secondary outcome measures will be assessedthrough a post-intervention survey and include demographic information and variouspsychological constructs, such as tendency to seek college services, social fit and appreciation ofdifference. The survey data will be augmented by review of data on utilization of campusresources, such as tutoring services. Qualitative data from interviews of student panelists and theinstructors who facilitate the freshman seminars will also be reported.BibliographyEngle, J., & Tinto, V. (2008). Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First- Generation Students. Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education.Harackiewicz, J. M., Canning, E. A., Tibbets, Y., Giffen, C. J., Blair, S. S., Rouse, D. I., & Janet, H. S. (2013, August 29). Closing the Social Class Achievement Gap for First-Generation Students in Undergraduate Biology. Journal of Educational Psychology, 106(2), 375- 389. doi:10.1037/a0034679Moller-Wong, C. and Eide, A. (1997), An Engineering Student Retention Study. Journal of Engineering Education, 86: 7–15. doi: 10.1002/j.2168-9830.1997.tb00259.xStephens, N. M., Hamedani, M. G., & Destin, M. (2014, February 19). Closing the Social-Class Achievement Gap: A Difference-Education Intervention Improves First-Generation Students' Academic Performance and All Students' College Transition. Psychological Science, 25, 943-953. doi:10.1177/0956797613518349U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. Bridging the Gap: Academic Preparation and Postsecondary Success of First-Generation Students, NCES 2001–153, by Edward C. Warburton, Rosio Bugarin, and Anne-Marie Nuñez. Project Officer: C. Dennis Carroll. Washington, DC: 2001

Paz, J. M., & Cousins, M., & Wilson, C. D., & Markey, M. K. (2015, June), Retention of First-year Undergraduate Engineering Students: Role of Psychosocial Interventions Targeting First-generation College Students Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24675

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