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Understanding How Female Students Navigate through Undergraduate Engineering Programs via an Examination of Their Intended and Declared Majors

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Suzanne Zurn-Birkhimer Purdue University-Main Campus, West Lafayette (College of Engineering)

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Dr. Suzanne Zurn-Birkhimer is Associate Director of the Women in Engineering Program and Associate Professor (by courtesy) in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University. Dr. Zurn-Birkhimer conducts research and leads retention activities including administration of the undergraduate and graduate mentoring programs and the teaching of the Women in Engineering seminar courses. For the past decade, Dr. Zurn-Birkhimer’s research has focused on broadening participation of women and underrepresented group in STEM fields. Recently, she has been investigating the intersection of education and career path with cultural identity and is developing strategies to inform programming and policies that facilitate recruitment and retention of underrepresented populations in academia. In 2012 Dr. Zurn-Birkhimer was presented with an Outstanding Alumni Award from the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University. She also serves on their Alumni Advisory Board. Dr. Zurn-Birkhimer earned her B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Minnesota, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science from Purdue University.

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Emily Fredette Purdue University

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Emily Fredette is a graduate student at Purdue University in Computer Engineering with an interest in Human Computer Interaction and the Automotive Industry, and she currently researches first year engineering students.

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Some engineering students find choosing a discipline to study in college a challenge while others seem to have a clear cut path toward their degree. How strongly students believe they are in the right major will affect their perceived ability to succeed, and the likelihood they will stay in engineering. Students may be introduced to engineering majors in high school or early college, and proper introductions can help students make informed choices on their chosen majors, but if students do not receive timely and appropriate introductions to majors, they may find themselves in the ‘wrong’ major, with respect to their interests or goals. Students feel pressure to choose the ‘right’ major very early in their academic career, due to possible negative consequences of switching.

Prior research with the MIDFIELD database has done a thorough job of examining how engineering students navigate to their degrees by studying major pipeline, pathways, and most recently ecosystems. This study, however, drills down to a specific cohort of students - female students in their first semester of a First-Year Engineering (FYE) program. It has been estimated that roughly one-half of these students enter into a major their sophomore year different from what they initially planned at the beginning of their freshman year. This longitudinal study examines the intended and declared majors of five cohorts of female students as they progressed through FYE, into an engineering discipline, and finally to their earned bachelor degree. Two types of students: Dedicated and Unsure, and three categories of majors: Confident, Middle Ground, and Unknown have been identified and defined. Results will be used to better understand the ‘major pathway’ that female students take through engineering and to develop timely and impactful interventions to aid student as they come to decision points along their pathways.

Zurn-Birkhimer, S., & Fredette, E. (2019, June), Understanding How Female Students Navigate through Undergraduate Engineering Programs via an Examination of Their Intended and Declared Majors Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--33478

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