Although initiatives and programs designed to broaden participation in academic institutions have generated many positive changes, the proportions of women, African American, Hispanic, and Native American students have not seen commensurate increases in engineering fields. Focusing on diversity at the discipline level has important implications for the design of effective department level programs and curricular interventions to promote participation and persistence of a broad range of students. This research study therefore applies a mixed methods approach to focus on a critical decision juncture—selection into an engineering major—to identify the prevailing patterns of engineering discipline composition. This study focuses on why students choose to major in engineering as a function of student gender, race/ethnicity, academic experiences, institutional programs, and student future plans and goals. Data comprise 39 individual student interviews, as well as over 20,000 student-level transcript data matriculating between 2001 and 2015 at a large Midwestern research university. Using organizational demography (Wharton, 1992) and social cognitive theory of self-regulation (Bandura, 1991) as theoretical frameworks, regression analyses were applied to identify factors that influence student selection into and persistence in engineering majors, while thematic analysis/grounded theory were used to analyze the interview transcripts.
Among the findings, students cite the following reasons for majoring in engineering: (1) parental influence, (2) high school teachers and programs, (3) college curriculum and programs, (4) professional/career-related aspirations, and (5) desires to help society. The authors synthesized the quantitative and qualitative findings to develop a conceptual model describing the process of major selection. Regression results show variation in likelihood of selecting certain engineering majors based on student demographic factors and first-year engineering GPA. Research findings provide important context and information for various potential applications to increase discipline-specific engineering diversity, such as developing new strategies/interventions to support success among underrepresented students, identifying overlooked areas in classroom environments, providing critical information for the development of surveys and larger-scale studies for investigating diversity across engineering. University administrators, faculty, and stakeholders could use these findings to help develop strategies to encourage more women and underrepresented students to pursue engineering and to consider more fully the wide range of engineering disciplines available.
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