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STEM Experiences of Engineering Students From Low-Socioeconomic Neighborhoods

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Social Dialogue on Diversity and Inclusion

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Justin Charles Major Purdue University, West Lafayette (College of Engineering) Orcid 16x16

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Justin C. Major is a first-year Engineering Education Ph.D student and National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at Purdue University. Justin has two bachelor’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Secondary Mathematics Education from the University of Nevada, Reno, and during his undergraduate education, he focused on K-12 Engineering Education. Justin's research and service focuses on the experiences and development of low-socioeconomic students as an often understudied population. Justin has served as the ASEE Student Division Co-Program Chair and is a current Director of Special Projects for the Educational Research & Methods Division.

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Allison Godwin Purdue University, West Lafayette (College of Engineering) Orcid 16x16

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Allison Godwin, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. Her research focuses what factors influence diverse students to choose engineering and stay in engineering through their careers and how different experiences within the practice and culture of engineering foster or hinder belongingness and identity development. Dr. Godwin graduated from Clemson University with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and Ph.D. in Engineering and Science Education. Her research earned her a National Science Foundation CAREER Award focused on characterizing latent diversity, which includes diverse attitudes, mindsets, and approaches to learning, to understand engineering students’ identity development. She is the recipient of a 2014 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Educational Research and Methods Division Apprentice Faculty Grant. She has also been recognized for the synergy of research and teaching as an invited participant of the 2016 National Academy of Engineering Frontiers of Engineering Education Symposium and 2016 New Faculty Fellow for the Frontiers in Engineering Education Annual Conference. She also was an NSF Graduate Research Fellow for her work on female empowerment in engineering which won the National Association for Research in Science Teaching 2015 Outstanding Doctoral Research Award.

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Gerhard Sonnert Harvard University

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Gerhard Sonnert is a lecturer on astronomy at Harvard University and a research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He received master's and doctorate degrees in sociology from the University of Erlangen, Germany, and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard University. One of his major research interests has been the impact of gender on science careers. This research has resulted in two books (both authored with the assistance of Gerald Holton): Who Succeeds in Science? The Gender Dimension and Gender Differences in Science Careers: The Project Access Study.

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This research paper explores the experiences of low socioeconomic (SES) students and identifies the unequal opportunities they may have experiencing STEM. Though STEM literature continues to encourage research surrounding minority identities, very few studies solely examine students who classify as low SES. Some intersectional research examines SES alongside or within race or first-generation status, but this focus may not provide an understanding of how SES, specifically, may factor into students’ STEM experiences and career goals. Many studies focus on deficit models of low SES students who lack college preparation or access to particular STEM experiences.

As part of a larger project, 15,847 undergraduate students at 37 institutions were surveyed regarding their STEM attitudes, interests, and pre-college STEM experiences. Students also provided their home ZIP codes in high school. Of the students who completed the survey, 2,372 identified themselves as engineering students and provided a ZIP code. We matched 2010 U.S. Census data for median household income to students’ responses via provided ZIP codes, and defined groups of low (n = 191), middle (n = 342), or high (n = 1,839) neighborhood SES based on the terciles within the sample. Pearson’s Chi-Squared Test and ANOVA/Kruskal-Wallis Tests, α set at the 0.05 level, were used to understand whether neighborhood SES was a significant factor in students’ career aspirations, their opportunities to participate in STEM activities, and perceptions of their school and home communities.

Low SES students had higher expectations than their peers to develop knowledge, use their talents, and be independent in their future jobs. Additionally, low SES students were more likely to participate in programs about higher education and career choices. In contrast, high SES peers had higher expectations to have a secure job, work with people, and have personal time in their future jobs. We also found that, not surprisingly, high SES peers had more experiences with mathematics (including higher levels of mathematics in high school), and more frequent AP test taking. These high SES students were more likely to have a father in a STEM job and to have family encourage them to pursue STEM, maybe leading to their consideration of engineering; low SES students reported that no person encouraged them to study STEM. Lastly, we found that higher SES peers more often felt like they made a difference in their school community or outside of school. Additionally, they reported feeling a sense of community, that members of the community supported them, and that they had strong community networks.

Our results speak to the disproportionately few opportunities low SES students have to experience STEM, and also to the assets and motivation that low SES students bring into STEM. Additionally, the smaller numbers within our low SES group speak to the underrepresentation of low SES students in engineering. This result highlights the need for the engineering education community to engage in studies which seek to understand the individual experiences of low SES students and the development of their attitudes and beliefs towards STEM.

Major, J. C., & Godwin, A., & Sonnert, G. (2018, June), STEM Experiences of Engineering Students From Low-Socioeconomic Neighborhoods Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30990

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