The underrepresentation of women and students of color in engineering undergraduate programs can be attributed to a multitude of factors, including, but not limited to, barriers in recruiting into engineering programs at the K-12 level, lack of peer support, inadequate academic advising or faculty support, stereotype threat in the classroom or in peer groups, and a chilly or unappealing climate within specific engineering disciplines. To systematically address issues of underrepresentation at our institution, we conducted an initial study of students’ experiences in undergraduate engineering programs. Moreover, considering baseline demographic differences across engineering programs (e.g., 43% women in biomedical engineering compared to 12% in electrical engineering), we conjectured students’ experience are not only localized to a particular institution, but to specific engineering disciplines within that institution.
The potential granularity of underrepresentation in engineering undergraduate programs places constraints on the methods that can be used to gather meaningful information about students’ experience. For example, within a given discipline at an institution, there may be too few underrepresented students to gather aggregate, de-identifiable data that would yield generalizable outcomes. No matter how well conceived a survey instrument, it is difficult to reliably measure the complexity and interrelatedness of potential factors that influence the recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups, especially when combined with small sample sizes. We met these methodological constraints by using multiple focus groups, clustering students by engineering discipline and demographics, and utilizing ethnographic research experts who solicited feedback from underrepresented groups on specific barriers and contributors to retention and recruitment. Our goal was to determine the driving factors of underrepresentation at our institution, considering the potential granularity of the problem by engineering discipline and student sub-population.
Twelve focus groups were assembled from the entire undergraduate engineering population (ca. 2,400 students in four-year programs), with separate focus groups for women, students of color, and majority (White and Asian male) students by discipline. Students were recruited for the study at random, and a total of 63 students participated. Focus groups were moderated by ethnographic researchers who, after reviewing the literature, developed a set of prompts for the discussion related to: (1) high school preparation; (2) interactions with peers; (3) interactions with faculty and staff; (4) program supports; and (5) family support. Focus group interviews were recorded, transcribed, and subjected to thematic analysis by the research team.
Our results indicate some common factors among academic units that may influence the issue of underrepresentation our institution; other more specific factors are related to particular engineering disciplines and to different demographic groups. Our findings indicate that nearly all students who struggled in their engineering coursework reported attending high schools rated low quality by standardized measures, and/or did not have access to rigorous pre-engineering programming in high school. This issue disproportionately affected students of color and first generation students. Moreover, females and students of color reported being the target of peer micro-aggressions related to race and gender; these issues were more acute among students of color. Micro-aggressions directed at students of color by faculty were also reported in specific discipline clusters; whereas underrepresented students in other clusters felt that their faculty valued them as students, as evidenced by the quality of teaching and advising. Black students emphasized the importance of minority-focused student organizations and funding opportunities to support these structures for their success, while women put less emphasis on these same supports. Hispanic students stressed the need for more financial support and generally placed less emphasis on minority-focused student organizations.
Overall, the results highlight the importance of disaggregating student experiences by engineering discipline and demographic group. Our findings are now being used to direct diversity efforts at our institution with more specificity. These findings and our methodology may be applied by other institutions as they work to better understand and address underrepresentation in their own undergraduate academic programs.
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