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Understanding Non-Traditional Students in Engineering and Computing (Work in Progress)

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Minorities in Engineering Division Technical Session 3

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Minorities in Engineering

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Paper Authors


Stephen Secules Florida International University Orcid 16x16

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Stephen is an Assistant Professor of Engineering and Computing Education at Florida International University. He has a prior academic and professional background in engineering, having worked professionally as an acoustical engineer. He has taught a number of courses on engineering and education, including courses on engineering design, systems in society, and learning theories. Stephen's research interests include equity, culture, and the sociocultural dimensions of engineering education.

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Bruk T. Berhane Florida International University

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Dr. Bruk T. Berhane received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland in 2003. He then completed a master’s degree in engineering management at George Washington University in 2007. In 2016, he earned a Ph.D. in the Minority and Urban Education Unit of the College of Education at the University of Maryland.
Bruk worked at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, where he focused on nanotechnology, from 2003 to 2005. In 2005 he left JHU/APL for a fellowship with the National Academies where he conducted research on methods of increasing the number of women in engineering. After a brief stint teaching mathematics in Baltimore City following his departure from the National Academies, he began working for the Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering (CMSE) in the Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland.
In 2011, he began working directly under the Office of the Dean in the Clark School, coordinating outreach and recruitment programs for the college. In 2016, he assumed the role of director of the Office of Undergraduate Recruitment and Scholarship Programs. His duties entailed working with prospective freshmen and transfer engineering students.
In 2018, he transitioned to the role of Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at the Clark School. His research interests transfer students who first enroll in community colleges, as well as developing broader and more nuanced engineering performance indicators.

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Haiying Long University of Kansas

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Anna Teresa Caringella

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Andrea Pinto

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Traditionally, undergraduate education was mostly reserved for White, upper- and middle-class, 18-22-year olds, and the vast majority of these students attended Predominantly White four-year institutions. However, the demographics of the United States continue to shift toward becoming a country that is majority racial and ethnic “minority” groups, with Americans over 35 years old being mostly White and Americans under 35 being mostly non-White and/or Hispanic (Schaeffer, 2019). In parallel, increasingly more undergraduate students are gaining access to college with characteristics that are not “traditional”: first-generation collegians, community college/transfer students, individuals over the age of 24, students with parental responsibilities and/or students who work their way through college.

We note that historically institutional systems have tended to be shaped around traditional students, yet the country’s demographic shifts suggest the importance of reevaluating those systems. By more intentionally directing institutional support toward nontraditional undergraduate populations, engineering can reach a more demographically diverse group of students while shifting in a way that mirrors anticipated changes in the student population. In order to define what institutional support actually looks like for nontraditional students in engineering, however, innovative studies that produce new data on this group of undergraduates are necessary.

This work-in-progress paper makes a case for and discusses initial pilot data exploring the experiences and persistence of non-traditional students in undergraduate engineering and computing majors at a large Minority Serving Institution. First, we present a review of three literature bases that overlap this topic: 1) the higher education literature on non-traditional college student pathways, 2) the STEM and engineering education literatures on discipline-specific challenges for persistence and success, and 3) the Minority Serving Institution literature on institutional factors that support minority student success. At the intersection of these three literature bases, we suggest a working conceptual framework to help address non-traditional student success in engineering and computing.

Second, we present pilot study findings related to non-traditional student success and persistence at a specific large Minority Serving Institution with a considerable population of commuter students, transfer students, part-time students, and adult learners. In the quantitative portion of our mixed methods study, institutional data is examined to present descriptive statistics and rates of persistence for specific non-traditional student groups. These statistics are complemented by one-on-one interview data to help understand the sources of challenges and opportunities for the populations of interest.

In future work, we propose further study of non-traditional engineering undergraduate student needs, challenges, and opportunities and comparison with institutional contexts in which non-traditional students are a smaller proportion of the population. By focusing attention on both the individual student and the institutional context, we hope to provide micro and macro-level insights on challenges and support strategies that may prove useful across the country.

Schaeffer, K. (2019). The most common age among whites in U.S. is 58 – more than double that of racial and ethnic minorities. FactTank: News in the Numbers. Pew Research Center.

Secules, S., & Berhane, B. T., & Long, H., & Caringella, A. T., & Pinto, A. (2021, July), Understanding Non-Traditional Students in Engineering and Computing (Work in Progress) Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--37961

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