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What Does It Mean to Be an Engineer? A Comparison of Adult Students at Three Institutions

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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

Addressing Diversity Issues in Engineering Education

Tagged Division

Two Year College Division

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Paper Authors

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Tressa Kay Mikel University of California, Berkeley

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Frank Hoang University of California, Berkeley


Pedro S. H. Kim UC Berkeley

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Bachelor of Arts in Resource Management (Interdisciplinary Research Studies) with a minor in Chemical Engineering and Certification in Entrepreneurship Technology from the University of California, Berkeley, May 2015.

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Maria-Isabel Carnasciali University of New Haven Orcid 16x16

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Maria-Isabel Carnasciali is an Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Tagliatela College of Engineering, University of New Haven, CT. She obtained her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Georgia Tech in 2008. She received her Bachelors of Engineering from MIT in 2000. Her research focuses on the nontraditional engineering student – understanding their motivations, identity development, and impact of prior engineering-related experiences. Her work dwells into learning in informal settings such as summer camps, military experiences, and extra-curricular activities. Other research interests involve validation of CFD models for aerospace applications as well as optimizing efficiency of thermal-fluid systems.

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Shannon Ciston University of California, Berkeley

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Shannon Ciston is a Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Education in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Ciston holds degrees in chemical engineering from Northwestern University (PhD) and Illinois Institute of Technology (BS). She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in technical communications and applied pedagogy, and conducts engineering education research.

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Our work is motivated by the need to cultivate a diverse group of talented future engineers. Adult undergraduate students over the age of 25 are an important source of engineers, with life experience that can enhance student experience, but not much is understood yet about this specific group. Adult students face challenges specific to their demographic due to responsibilities in other aspects of their life as employees, parents, spouses, and more. This paper examines adult engineering students’ conceptions of what an engineer is, across three distinct academic environments: a community college, a small private undergraduate university, and a large public research university. A semi-structured interview approach was used to collect data from adult students with prior engineering-related work experience. These data reveal strong similarities among the conception of what it means to be an engineer, despite differences in the demographic background and institutional context of the participants. There are differences in course load, employment status, and number of dependents among the sample populations at the three institutions. Participants from all institutions identified with occupational respect, application of knowledge to find solutions, benefiting society, and problem solving as important aspects of the engineering occupation. We conclude that a well-defined, accessible engineering support structure is instrumental in promoting students' conception of the engineering occupation. This work suggests opportunities to enhance professional identity development at institutions of multiple types through industrial collaboration and mentorship, policies and programs to support student-parents, and cooperative work opportunities that marry engineering education with engineering practice.

Mikel, T. K., & Hoang, F., & Kim, P. S. H., & Carnasciali, M., & Ciston, S. (2016, June), What Does It Mean to Be an Engineer? A Comparison of Adult Students at Three Institutions Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.27192

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