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Using Focus Groups to Understand Military Veteran Students’ Pathways in Engineering Education

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Understanding the Military Veteran's Human Resource Needs - Transition from Military Service to the Engineering Profession

Tagged Division

Military and Veterans Constituent Committee

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Joyce B. Main Purdue University, West Lafayette Orcid 16x16

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Joyce B. Main is Assistant Professor of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She holds a Ph.D. in Learning, Teaching, and Social Policy from Cornell University, and an Ed.M. in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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Michelle M. Camacho University of San Diego

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Michelle Madsen Camacho is Chair and Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of San Diego. She formerly held two postdoctoral fellowships at the University of California, San Diego, at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies and in the Department of Ethnic Studies. Fluent in both quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, her research uses theories from interdisciplinary sources including cultural studies, critical race, gender and feminist theories. Central to her work are questions of culture, power and inequality. She is affiliated faculty with the Department of Ethnic Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Latin American Studies.

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Catherine Mobley Clemson University

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Catherine Mobley, Ph.D., is a Professor of Sociology at Clemson University. She has over 20 years experience in project and program evaluation and has worked for a variety of consulting firms, non-profit agencies, and government organizations, including the Rand Corporation, the American Association of Retired Persons, the U.S. Department of Education, and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. Since 2004, she been a member of the NSF-funded MIDFIELD research project on engineering education; she has served as a Co-PI on three research projects, including one on transfer students and another on student veterans in engineering.

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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 Amer-
ican 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 under-graduate 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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Susan M Lord University of San Diego

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Susan M. Lord received a B.S. from Cornell University and the M.S. and Ph.D. from Stanford University. She is currently Professor and Chair of Electrical Engineering at the University of San Diego. Her teaching and research interests include electronics, optoelectronics, materials science, first year engineering courses, feminist and liberative pedagogies, engineering student persistence, and student autonomy. Her research has been sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Dr. Lord is a fellow of the ASEE and IEEE and is active in the engineering education community including serving as General Co-Chair of the 2006 Frontiers in Education (FIE) Conference, on the FIE Steering Committee, and as President of the IEEE Education Society for 2009-2010. She is an Associate Editor of the IEEE Transactions on Education. She and her coauthors were awarded the 2011 Wickenden Award for the best paper in the Journal of Engineering Education and the 2011 Best Paper Award for the IEEE Transactions on Education. In Spring 2012, Dr. Lord spent a sabbatical at Southeast University in Nanjing, China teaching and doing research.

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This study examines the experiences of military veterans pursuing bachelor’s degrees in engineering. Given the diverse backgrounds of veterans, their increasing numbers, and the growing national demand for engineering professionals, the timing is ideal to study the conditions under which student veterans pursue engineering education and the factors that offer them the greatest support for success. Using a comparative case study approach across three institutions, University of San Diego, North Carolina State University, and Purdue University, student veterans are interviewed in focus groups to gain insights on the following research questions:

1. Why do veterans pursue a Bachelor’s degree in engineering? 2. How do military experiences shape student veterans’ educational experiences? 3. What are the experiences of student veterans in engineering education?

The thematic analysis indicates that military veterans pursue engineering based on (1) previous experiences with engineering-related activities while in the military, (2) recommendations from family and friends, (3) the challenging nature of the engineering discipline, and/or (4) the positive job outlook (including prestige and salary) associated with the engineering profession. Other themes that emerged include: differences between student veterans and traditional students and balancing academic and family lives. Most of the student veterans interviewed in the focus groups reported positive academic experiences with sufficient to ample support from faculty and student services. Some noted that the discipline, work ethic, teaming skills, and the mindset that they gained from the military facilitated their progress through the engineering curriculum. Some indicated being more vocal than other traditional students in asking questions and in seeking help from faculty in regard to learning course materials, while others relied on study groups. Findings will provide context and information for various applications, such as: identifying ways in which the military can help separating service members transition into engineering education, development of new strategies to support student veterans' success, identification of overlooked areas to promote student veterans' participation in engineering, and generation of critical information for development of larger-scale studies for investigating student veterans in engineering.

Main, J. B., & Camacho, M. M., & Mobley, C., & Brawner, C. E., & Lord, S. M. (2016, June), Using Focus Groups to Understand Military Veteran Students’ Pathways in Engineering Education Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.27147

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