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Social-Cognitive and Educational Environment Trends in Undergraduate Engineering: Results from Three Consecutive Cross-Sectional Studies

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2021 CoNECD


Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day

Publication Date

January 24, 2021

Start Date

January 24, 2021

End Date

January 28, 2021

Conference Session

CoNECD Session : Day 2 Slot 3 Technical Session 3

Tagged Topics

Diversity and CoNECD Paper Submissions

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Paper Authors


Mary E. Fitzpatrick University of Wisconsin - Madison

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Mary Fitzpatrick, Ph.D. is an educational psychology researcher and former engineer. She directs the student programs and initiatives offered by the Diversity Affairs Office, evaluates program outcomes for diversity initiatives and conducts original research in the area of underrepresented individuals and organizational climate in engineering education and the workplace. Dr. Fitzpatrick holds an undergraduate degree in Biomedical Engineering, a master’s degree in Electrical Engineering and was a practicing engineer for GE, Microsoft and other leading companies before earning her Ph.D. in educational psychology.

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Manuela Romero University of Wisconsin - Madison

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Manuela Romero is the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Affairs in the College of Engineering at UW-Madison; she oversees undergraduate student services, including student services centers (advising), engineering student development (career services, cooperative education, and study abroad), undergraduate learning center (academic enhancement and tutoring) and diversity affairs (K-12 outreach, recruitment, retention of underrepresented populations in engineering). Dr. Romero also serves as the Principal Investigator for the Pre-Engineering Education Collaborative, which is a partnership with the College of Menominee Nation; and Co-Principal Investigator of Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation.

Dr. Romero is an applied organizational sociologist with expertise in quantitative and qualitative methods. Her academic expertise focuses on guiding organizational policies and practices to help all students succeed. She has extensive experience in research design, design and implementation of support activities and programs, program evaluation, and with manipulating large data sets. Romero earned her bachelor’s degree in social science from San Diego State University and master’s and doctoral degrees in Sociology from Stanford University.

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James A. Yonker

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In 2008, 2015 and 2019 a College of Engineering at a large, Midwestern Research-I university deployed a survey to undergraduate students to assess the environment for education in engineering, and a several career decision factors related to retention in engineering. The instrument is based on the Project to Assess Climate in Engineering (PACE) survey, extended in 2019 to investigate new constructs. In 2008, invitations were sent to 3010 enrolled undergraduate students generating 1082 usable responses (36%). In 2015, we sent 4613 invitations and generated 1036 usable responses (22.4%) and in 2019 we sent 4112 invitations and generated 1132 usable responses (27.5%). Participants in all three data collection years responded to questions about their educational environment including professors, teaching assistants, college resources, interpersonal experiences, and experiences of stereotyping and harassment from various sources at the College (faculty, teaching assistants and other students). In addition, we assessed social cognitive variables related to career decision making, including engineering self-efficacy, expectations for the field of engineering and commitment to their major. In 2019, students were asked if they identified as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, allowing for a better understanding of these students’ experiences. Finally, new items were created to assess students’ experiences of feeling welcomed and experiences in research teams/labs. Items formed 11 scale factors found to be internally consistent for the population. Trends from previous two data collections were analyzed as repeated measures. We found that students’ assessment of the educational environment (professors, teaching assistants, student interactions and college resources) were relatively stable, while other aspects of the environment (experiences of stereotyping and harassment) significantly increased across the entire student population and for members of underrepresented groups in each measurement year. Individual social cognitive measures also significantly declined in each measurement year. We discuss these trends in the context of Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT), and call for increased attention to standardizing terminology and measurements for engineering educational assessment. Educational researchers have been studying factors related to retention in engineering for over forty years. [1] More recently, the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) initiated a voluntary Retention and Time-to-Graduate survey in 2013, as a way to better understand national trends for persistence and graduation benchmarks and how these benchmarks vary for different groups of students. [2] Researchers from various theoretical lenses including educational psychology, vocational psychology and engineering education have investigated multiple aspects of the student experience as well as psychosocial variables that might interact to influence students’ decision to leave or to remain in undergraduate engineering programs. A strong motivating aspect of the research is to determine if and how the persistence of different groups of students who are underrepresented in engineering education and in the field of engineering is influenced by individual and contextual factors. An important part of research into engineering retention comes from the “Project to Assess Climate in Engineering” (“PACE”) study. PACE has been described in ASEE conferences and published in the literature since shortly after it was first deployed across multiple colleges of engineering by researchers at the University of Washington. [3, 4] The project included substantial qualitative and quantitative research with active data collection occurring over the period of four years (2008-2012). The first data collection of the current study was part of the PACE project, while the last two data collections of the current quantitative study occurred after the completion of the PACE project. We present these three cross-sectional datasets from consecutive surveys of engineering undergraduate students over an eleven-year time period at a single college of engineering. The survey instrument utilized in the most recent 2019 data collection has undergone minor revisions and several important additions. For example, in 2019 we added a question asking participants if they identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ). 6.8% of our participants responded that they did identify as LGBTQ. While there has long been a focus on women and underrepresented racial/ethnic minorities in engineering, scholars have only recently begun to consider the experiences of LGBTQ people in the field of engineering and in engineering education. Recent studies by Cech and colleagues [5, 6] suggest that LGBTQ individuals do indeed experience marginalization as part of the culture in many engineering programs. Data from our 2019 survey allows us to investigate specifically how LGBTQ individuals differ from non-LBGTQ individuals in their perception of the environment in engineering, and psychosocial status related to their educational choice, and also to establish baseline measures for future studies of engineering students who report LGBTQ identity. While several demographic questions and other items have been added in 2019, the underlying constructs under consideration have remained intact, allowing investigation of how these constructs may be changing over time. It is beyond the scope of this manuscript to do a full historical review of the research on each construct. However, we propose that the constructs measured in the PACE survey can be mapped to Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT) , a robust research framework for studying retention in higher education and in occupations [7]. SCCT is a well-researched theoretical framework for describing relationships of psychological and contextual variables influencing educational and career choices. We argue that SCCT provides clarity and explanatory power to the relationships between the constructs under study, suggests how those constructs might interact to influence student retention and provides a theoretical grounding that will be useful for future research. First, we will review terminology, describe the theoretical and research grounding for the variables under study, and describe the fit between variables measured by the PACE survey and SCCT variables. We will then present results in three independent student cohorts that demonstrate changes in some constructs and stability in other constructs, and discuss the implications of these results. Finally, we will discuss the opportunities and challenges of theory grounded research in discipline-based educational psychology. 1. Connolly, T. and A.L. Porter, Women in Engineering: Policy Recommendations for Recruitment and Retention in Undergraduate Programs. 1978. 2. Yoder, B., Engineering by the numbers. Washington, DC: American Society for Engineering Education. 2017. 3. Litzler, E., et al. Gender and race/ethnicity in engineering: Preliminary findings from the Project to Assess Climate in Engineering. in American Society for Engineering Education. 2010. American Society for Engineering Education. 4. Metz, S., S. Brainard, and E. Litzler. Extending Research into Practice: Results from the Project to Assess Climate in Engineering(PACE). in American Society for Engineering Education. 2010. American Society for Engineering Education. 5. Cech, E.A. and W.R. Rothwell, LGBTQ Inequality in Engineering Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 2018. 107(4): p. 583-610. 6. Cech, E.A., T.J. Waidzunas, and S. Farrell. The inequality of LGBTQ students in US Engineering education: Report on a study of eight engineering programs. in ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings. 2017. 7. Lent, R.W., S.D. Brown, and G. Hackett, Toward a Unifying Social Cognitive Theory of Career and Academic Interest, Choice, and Performance. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 1994. 45(1): p. 79-122.

Fitzpatrick, M. E., & Romero, M., & Yonker, J. A. (2021, January), Social-Cognitive and Educational Environment Trends in Undergraduate Engineering: Results from Three Consecutive Cross-Sectional Studies Paper presented at 2021 CoNECD, Virtual - 1pm to 5pm Eastern Time Each Day . 10.18260/1-2--36120

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