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The Accidental Engineer

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

FPD 1: The Path to Engineering

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1186.1 - 24.1186.14



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Paper Authors


Catherine E. Brawner Research Triangle Educational Consultants

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Catherine E. Brawner is President of Research Triangle Educational Consultants. She received her Educational Research and Policy Analysis from NC State University in 1996. She also has an MBA from Indiana University (Bloomington) and a bachelor’s degree from Duke University. She specializes in evaluation and research in engineering education, computer science education, teacher education, and technology education. Dr. Brawner is a founding member and former treasurer of Research Triangle Park Evaluators, an American Evaluation Association affiliate organization and is a member of the American Educational Research Association and American Evaluation Association, in addition to ASEE. Dr. Brawner is also an Extension Services Consultant for the National Center for Women in Information Technology (NCWIT) and, in that role, advises computer science departments on diversifying their undergraduate student population. Dr. Brawner previously served as principal evaluator of the NSF-sponsored SUCCEED Coalition. She remains an active researcher with MIDFIELD, studying gender issues, transfers, and matriculation models in engineering.

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Marisa K. Orr Louisiana Tech University Orcid 16x16


Matthew W. Ohland Purdue University and Central Queensland University Orcid 16x16

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Matthew W. Ohland is Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University and a Professorial Research Fellow at Central Queensland University. He has degrees from Swarthmore College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the University of Florida. His research on the longitudinal study of engineering students, team assignment, peer evaluation, and active and collaborative teaching methods has been supported by over $12.8 million from the National Science Foundation and the Sloan Foundation and his team received Best Paper awards from the Journal of Engineering Education in 2008 and 2011 and from the IEEE Transactions on Education in 2011. Dr. Ohland is past Chair of ASEE’s Educational Research and Methods division and a member the Board of Governors of the IEEE Education Society. He was the 2002–2006 President of Tau Beta Pi.

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The Accidental EngineerBackgroundThere is evidence that the key hurdle to graduating more US engineering students is recruitment,not retention. Ohland et al. (2008) show that while engineering retains to the 8th semester nearly60% of the students who begin in engineering, only 7% of first time in college students who arein engineering in their 8th semester of enrollment began their college careers outside ofengineering. Many programs have been put in place to recruit students into engineering fromunderrepresented groups, but fewer programs exist to recruit from among students alreadyenrolled in universities and the nature of the engineering curriculum makes it difficult for manystudents to switch into engineering once they have chosen a different academic pathway.MethodsIn an ongoing study of engineering matriculation practices using the Multiple InstitutionDatabase for Investigating Engineering Longitudinal Development that was the basis for Ohlandet al’s study cited above, 61 interviews were conducted with sophomore engineering students at6 universities in the MIDFIELD partnership. Among those were six students who entered theirinstitutions intending to major in something other than engineering. This paper uses a case studymethodology to explore the students’ motivation for beginning in the non-engineering major andsubsequently switching to an engineering major.FindingsOne student “accidentally” checked the engineering box on her application and because she didso, she was invited into a special program for “diamonds in the rough” at her college, designedfor students with potential to succeed in engineering but whose academic background does notmeet normal admissions requirements. Another student chose the engineering dorm for itslocation on campus and because there “weren’t that many options” when she went to choose herfirst year living environment. Her roommate and other engineers in the dorm convinced her thatshe would be happier in an engineering major than her original zoology major. These and otherstudents will be profiled in this paper to explore how students make the decision to switch intoengineering from other majors.ImplicationsBecause it has been shown that engineering retains students at a better rate than other disciplines(Ohland, et al 2008), in order to fill the nation’s need for more engineering graduates, studentsneed to be recruited from other disciplines into the field. This paper will provide insight into howstudents may be attracted to engineering from other disciplines and may help decision makersimprove their recruiting efforts.ReferenceOhland, M. W., Sheppard, S. D., Lichtenstein, G., Eris, O., Chachra, D., and Layton, R. (2008).Persistence, engagement, and migration in engineering programs. Journal of EngineeringEducation 97(3). 259-278.

Brawner, C. E., & Orr, M. K., & Ohland, M. W. (2014, June), The Accidental Engineer Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23119

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