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Seeing the Big Picture: The Role that Undergraduate Work Experiences Can Play in the Persistence of Female Engineering Undergraduates

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

Undergraduate Student Issues: Persistence

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.1058.1 - 23.1058.16



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Paper Authors


Cate Samuelson University of Washington

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Cate Samuelson is a Doctoral Candidate in Education and Leadership Policy Studies at the University of Washington. She also works as a Research Assistant at the University of Washington (UW) Center for Workforce Development (CWD), where she conducts qualitative research and analysis on the Project to Assess Climate in Engineering (PACE) project. Her research interests include P-20 school-community relations and community capacity building/development in low-income urban and first-ring suburban environments, supporting low-income students in accessing quality educational opportunities and experiences, and providing pathways and supports for low-income students and other underrepresented groups to pursue STEM-related careers. Her dissertation study is focused on the role that a community-based organization plays in connecting recent immigrant families living in low-income environments with the schools their children attend. She has worked as a Research Assistant and an Independent Research Consultant on a variety of projects, including those focused on educational leadership, STEM education, and academic and social supports for disadvantaged students.

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Elizabeth Litzler University of Washington

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Elizabeth Litzler, Ph.D., is the Director for Research at the University of Washington (UW) Center for Workforce Development (CWD) and an Affiliate Assistant Professor in UW Sociology. She directs research projects from conceptualization, methodological design, collection of data and analysis, to dissemination of research findings. Dr. Litzler manages the Sloan-funded Project to Assess Climate in Engineering (PACE), which uses quantitative and qualitative methods to examine the culture for women and underrepresented minorities in 22 engineering colleges nationwide. She also directs the external evaluation for the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). In addition to her leadership in the office, Dr. Litzler is a member of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) and a Board Member of Women in Engineering ProActive Network (WEPAN). Her research interests include the educational climate for students in science and engineering and gender and race stratification in education and the workforce.

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The Role that Undergraduate Work Experiences Can Play in the Persistence of Female Engineering UndergraduatesWhile there is a growing literature examining the relationship between undergraduate workexperiences (internships & co-ops) and academic and post-graduation outcomes such as startingsalary and likelihood of job offers (Blair, Millea & Hammer,2004; Schuurman, Pangborn, &McClintic, 2008; Gardner & Motschenbacker, 1997), there is less literature describing how astudent’s experience in an engineering-related internship or co-op affects their likelihood ofstaying in the major and graduating with an engineering degree. The literature on the effect ofcooperative programs or internships on women generally focuses on the specific outcomes ofthese types of undergraduate work experiences, such job offers and satisfaction with first job(Rowe, 1980; Gardner, Nixon & Motschenbacker, 1992). In this paper we propose to dig deeperto create an understanding of the role of engineering-related work experiences in femaleundergraduates’ engineering experience. What do these cooperative education experiences meanto female engineering students? How do experiences of cooperative education differ betweenwomen who stayed in an engineering major and women who switched out of engineering?This topic is important because there is strong evidence of student flexibility and vacillationaround career options post-graduation. Specifically, a single interaction or experience (such as aco-op) can sometimes mean the difference between taking job after graduation in engineering oranother field (Lichtenstein, Loshbaugh, Claar, Chen, Jackson, & Sheppard, 2009). And researchsuggests that cooperative education and internships result in increased social and cultural capitalof those who participate (Foor, Walden& Trytten, 2007). Finally, student perceptions of theengineering field, which can be shaped by undergraduate work experiences, can also impactpersistence in engineering programs (Besterfield, Moreno, Shuman & Atman, 2001; Burtner,2004; Cech, Rubineau, Silbey & Seron, 2011; French et al., 2005; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997).This qualitative inquiry, which is part of a larger research project funded by the Alfred P. SloanFoundation, known as the Project to Assess Climate in Engineering (PACE), focuses on makingsense of the realities and experiences of undergraduate engineering students and thusincorporates an interpretive perspective (Merriam, 1998). This study analyzed semi-structuredinterviews conducted in the autumn of 2008 and spring of 2009 with 82 female students rangingin age from 18-28 (63 ‘stayers’ and 19 ‘switchers’).Initial findings indicate that internships and co-ops play a key role in female student experiences,as well as in their decisions whether to persist in undergraduate engineering programs. The paperwill describe the specific internship/co-op benefits that both stayers and switchers perceived, aswell as provide detail about what undergraduate work experiences meant to ‘switchers’ inparticular. On some topics, stayers and switchers talked about internships and co-ops in differentways, providing insight into the role that these events played in the persistence of femaleengineering undergraduates.ReferencesBesterfield-Sacre, M., Moreno, M., Shuman, L. J., & Atman, C. J. (2001). Gender and ethnicitydifferences in freshmen engineering student attitudes: A cross-institutional study. Journal ofEngineering Education, 90(4), 477-489.Blair, B.F., Millea, M. & Hammer, J. (2004). The impact of cooperative education on academicperformance and compensation of engineering majors. Journal of Engineering Education, 333-338.Burtner, J. (2004). Critical-to-quality factors associated with engineering student persistence:The influence of freshman attitudes. ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education ConferenceProceedings.Cech, E., Rubineau, B., Silbey, S., & Seron, C. (2011). Professional role confidence andgendered persistence in engineering. American Sociological Review, 76(5), 641-666.Foor, C.S., Walden, S.& Trytten, D. (2007). “I wish that I belonged more in this wholeengineering group:” Achieving individual diversity. Journal of Engineering Education 96 (2):103-15.French, B. F., Immekus, J. C., & Oakes, W. C. (2005). An examination of indicators ofengineering students' success and persistence. Journal of Engineering Education, 94(4), 419-425.Gardner, P.D. & Motschenbacker, G. (1997). Early work outcomes of co-op and non-co-opengineers: A comparison of expectations, job level, and salary. Journal of CooperativeEducation 33 (1): 6-24.Gardner, P.D., Nixon, D.C., & Motschenbacker, G. (1992). Starting salary outcomes ofcooperative education graduates. Journal of Cooperative Education 27 (3): 16-26.Lichtenstein, G., Loshbaugh, H. G., Claar, B., Chen, H. L., Jackson, K., & Sheppard, S. (2009).An engineering degree does not (necessarily) an engineer make: Career decision making amongundergraduate engineering majors. Journal of Engineering of Engineering Education, 98(3),227–234.Merriam, S. B. (1998). Qualitative research and case study applications in education. SanFrancisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.Rowe, P.M. (1980) Cooperative programs: Especially beneficial for women? Journal ofCooperative Education 23: 33-39.Seymour, E., & Hewitt, N. M. (1997). Talking about leaving: Why undergraduates leave thesciences. Boulder, Colo: Westview Press.

Samuelson, C., & Litzler, E. (2013, June), Seeing the Big Picture: The Role that Undergraduate Work Experiences Can Play in the Persistence of Female Engineering Undergraduates Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--22443

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