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Why Students Leave Engineering: The Unexpected Bond

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2006 Annual Conference & Exposition


Chicago, Illinois

Publication Date

June 18, 2006

Start Date

June 18, 2006

End Date

June 21, 2006



Conference Session

Knowing Our Students III

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

11.1451.1 - 11.1451.7



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Paper Authors


Lorraine Fleming Howard University

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LORRAINE FLEMING is professor and former Chair of the Department of Civil Engineering at Howard University. Dr. Fleming serves as the Co-Principal Investigator of a National Science Foundation HBCU Undergraduate Program grant designed to increase the number of underrepresented minorities who pursue degrees in engineering, mathematics and science. She is also a 2005 Scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

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Kimarie Engerman Howard University

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KIMARIE ENGERMAN is a senior Research Associate for the Center for the Advancement in Engineering Education (CAEE). She has served in this capacity for the last three years. She earned a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Howard University.

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Dawn Williams Howard University

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DAWN G. WILLIAMS is an Assistant Professor and Master's Program Coordinator in the Department of Educational Administration and Policy at Howard University. She serves as a researcher on the longitudinal study conducted by the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education as well as a team member for the Institute for Scholarship on Engineering Education. Her primary research interests lie in K-12 educational policies targeted for urban school reform.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Why Students Leave Engineering: The Unexpected Bond

I. Introduction This research study is part of an in-depth longitudinal study of engineering students, at four institutions, to gain significant insight into the learning of these students across diverse populations and environments. In this longitudinal study, researchers look carefully at the lives of engineering students (approximately 40 from each campus) during the first three years of their college experience with an emphasis on the challenges they face and how they handle those challenges. In this paper, we describe why, after only one year, students at one institution in our study chose to switch to non-engineering majors. We explored the underlying issues that led to their departure and used ethnographic exit interviews to collect data to better understand the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators that led to their leaving engineering.

Fifty percent of students who enter engineering programs as freshman do not earn an engineering degree1. Although many of these students may have been academically prepared and highly motivated to study engineering, something happens during the first year that results in their choosing to leave engineering. A change in motivation is perhaps the ultimate factor in their final decision.

II. Theoretical Framework In the context of classroom learning, psychologists describe student’s motivation as “achievement motivation” with three unique learning goals2,3. Students may have a goal to master a new set of skills or knowledge (mastery goal), to do better than others (performance goal), or to be accepted by others (social goal)4,5,6. Researchers found that students with mastery goals outperform students with either performance or social goals.

We argue that engineering students must strive for all three goals to succeed. They must be motivated to adjust to college life (social goal), motivated to avoid failure of a course (performance goals), and ultimately motivated to achieve success in earning an engineering degree (mastery goals). The first year student trying to achieve these goals must deal with the complex interrelationship among the goals. In this paper we further argue that the motivation to study engineering can disappear or be greatly diminished when there is a break or potential break in this interrelationship. For example, if you fail a class you in turn are not making successful progress towards earning a degree. Students, who are unsuccessful in making progress towards these goals, simply leave engineering, and do not earn degrees in engineering.

III. Background Literature The literature cites a number of factors, often thought to be isolate and independent, for why students leave engineering. Performance in calculus courses, the most commonly cited, is believed to be the largest obstacle for first-year students in engineering programs. The design of most engineering curricula expects students to be calculus-ready when they arrive at college. Many are not. Thus, when students fail or withdraw from Calculus I, it greatly affects their


Fleming, L., & Engerman, K., & Williams, D. (2006, June), Why Students Leave Engineering: The Unexpected Bond Paper presented at 2006 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, Illinois. 10.18260/1-2--375

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: © 2006 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