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The Choice Opportunity Disparity: Exploring Curricular Choice Opportunities for Engineering vs. Non-Engineering Majors

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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

Multidisciplinary Approaches for Enhancing Non-technical Skills

Tagged Division

Multidisciplinary Engineering

Tagged Topic


Page Count


Page Numbers

26.1512.1 - 26.1512.15



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Paper Authors


Marissa H. Forbes University of Colorado, Boulder

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Marissa H. Forbes is a doctoral candidate in civil engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder with an engineering education research focus. She previously taught middle school science and engineering and wrote K-12 STEM curricula while an NSF GK-12 graduate engineering fellow at CU. With a master’s degree in civil engineering she went on to teach advanced placement and algebra-based physics for the Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST), where she also created and taught a year-long, design-based DSST engineering course for seniors. Before beginning her PhD work, Marissa returned to CU, where she supervised K-12 fellows and worked with educators engaged in the creation of K-12 engineering curriculum for the TeachEngineering digital library.

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Angela R. Bielefeldt University of Colorado, Boulder

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Angela Bielefeldt is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering (CEAE). She serves as the Associate Chair for Undergraduate Education in the CEAE Department, as well as the ABET assessment coordinator. Professor Bielefeldt is the faculty director of the Sustainable By Design Residential Academic Program, a living-learning community where interdisciplinary students learn about and practice sustainability. Bielefeldt is also a licensed P.E. Professor Bielefeldt's research interests in engineering education include service-learning, sustainable engineering, social responsibility, ethics, and diversity.

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Jacquelyn F. Sullivan University of Colorado, Boulder

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Jacquelyn Sullivan is founding co-director of the General Engineering Plus degree program in the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. The newly-launched, design-based, "design-your-own" flexible GE+ engineering degree was initially created as the "home" for CU Teach Engineering, a unique initiative to produce secondary science or math teachers through a design-based engineering degree. With the aim of enhancing curricular choice as a means to broaden participation among who chooses to attend engineering college, the GE+ degree was quickly expanded to provide a strong analytical, engineering-based platform for students driven to chart their own educational path. Sullivan was conferred as an ASEE Fellow in 2011 and was awarded NAE’s 2008 Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education.

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Curricular Choice Opportunities for Engineering vs. Non-Engineering MajorsThis study explores the amount of curricular choice undergraduate engineering studentsencounter in working towards an engineering degree as compared to their non-engineering peerson campus. The course choices students have the autonomy to make while earning an ABET-accredited engineering degree in various disciplines are compared to those of students earning adegree in Physics, Chemistry, Math, Economics, or Psychology. “Choice Values” for degreeprograms at five regionally-diverse universities are presented, including both public and privateinstitutions, a large research university, a small liberal arts college, and a HBCU.A Choice Value is a quantified representation of the aggregate curricular choice opportunity for agiven degree program, and is a function of total course choice opportunities, the proportion ofdegree credit hours that provide curricular choice, and the number of courses from whichstudents can choose. Choice Values were determined using the published curriculum in theuniversity catalogs, as well as counts for the number of individual course options for each choiceopportunity. Examples of choice opportunities within engineering degree programs includemenus of course options, technical electives, humanities and social science electives, and freeelectives.Findings of the differentially limited curricular choices available to engineering students acrossall five universities and degrees studied are revealed. In short, engineering students were foundto have an average of over 15 times less curricular choice than their non-engineering peers.Within institutions, the amount of curricular choice engineering students get was ratherconsistent; the variability in Choice Values between different ABET-accredited engineeringmajors was typically within a factor of 2. However, Choice Values for Mechanical Engineeringdegrees varied by a factor of 33 between institutions, while Choice Values for Civil Engineeringdegrees varied by a factor of 50−indicating that choice within engineering degrees variessignificantly between different institutions.The comparatively dismal amount of course choice available to students pursuing an engineeringdegree leads to the question of if, and how, degree programs might provide more course choiceopportunities, and if doing so could positively impact broadening participation in engineeringenrollments and improve graduation rates. The limited course choice opportunities engineeringstudents encounter reflects the notoriously restrictive and lock-step nature of many engineeringdegree programs, and may be a contributor to the numerous, persistent access and retentionchallenges. Education environments that support autonomy have been shown to foster self-motivation, increased engagement, higher-quality learning, and personal well-being—alloutcomes that could positively impact access and retention. Increasing course choiceopportunities for students seeking an engineering degree may encourage students to meet theirinnate psychological need for autonomy within the context of an engineering education, andcould thus benefit educational and program outcomes.The design of a new (2013), multidisciplinary engineering degree program that provides studentswith significant course choice opportunities via a flexible and customizable curriculum ispresented.

Forbes, M. H., & Bielefeldt, A. R., & Sullivan, J. F. (2015, June), The Choice Opportunity Disparity: Exploring Curricular Choice Opportunities for Engineering vs. Non-Engineering Majors Paper presented at 2015 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Seattle, Washington. 10.18260/p.24850

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2015 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015