Like many of National Academy of Engineering’s consensus studies, the 2018 Pathways report tells us what we maybe knew, but nevertheless needed to hear: students enter engineering education from diverse points of origin, and continue through to careers that are as likely beyond engineering as it is within it. However, a close reading of the report also reveals two voices. On the one hand, educators and administrators who were eager to point out that engineering can serve as rigorous preparation for a variety of subsequent occupations; and a smaller number of educators and practitioners such as NAE staff members, who in being aware of the literature on women and minorities in education, make the point that students enter engineering with diverse backgrounds and preparation, and this impacts their educational experience and eventual diversity of the career pathways they take.
In this paper, we wish to present some preliminary results on student perspectives on how they navigate through their own educational transformation. What we provide is an early analysis of interview data gained from student interviews, which point to how student pathways are determined in largely interactionist terms, namely through their interactions with other students, instructors, and other staff. How students experience, and emerge out of well-known phenomena such as imposter’s syndrome (Parkman 2016), race and gender dynamics in group work (Rosser 1998), peer study groups, family obligations and influence, and their willingness or discomfort in engaging with support services shape what choices they make about their degree program, much of which is less about a departure from the field as they are about formative decisions on how they plan to chart their career going forward.
Our analysis builds on symbolic interactionist studies, and specifically the notion of a student’s development of an identification with an occupation (Becker and Carper, 1956). However, in contrast to classic studies such as Becker, Geer, Hughes, and Strauss’ Boys in White (1961), where the substantial uniformity of their entering cohort of medical students produced a common pathway towards identification with the profession, the diverse backgrounds, value commitments, and preparation of students predispose engineering students to enter their field of study with very different mindsets. (The structure of medical education guarantees that all medical students have successfully navigated a premed curriculum, and have been selected into schools based on their abilities.) In contrast to studies that focus primarily on socialization processes that occur within an engineering school, our study places equal emphasis on each student’s prior background, and how this shapes their aspirations as well as experiences and encounters with an engineering curriculum and student cohorts.
Our data set was initially designed to complement a large, faculty and administration dominated data set on institutional perspectives on educational reform (NSF-SES-1656125, SES-1655750, SES-1656117, collaborative). Eager to ascertain whether faculty perspectives on student experience were aligned with student experiences themselves, we secured an REU supplement through which seven current or former undergraduate students conducted semi-structured interviews. These student-researchers were themselves of diverse backgrounds, and rather than interviewing students at our own institution, these students used their personal networks (e.g. friends of high school friends; those affiliated with NSBE) in an attempt to match the diverse institutional demographics of our larger study, which included public and private universities; general universities, stand-alone engineering schools, liberal arts colleges, and community colleges; and both primarily white and Hispanic serving institutions. A subject selection matrix was also employed to maintain balanced distribution within our subject sample, with the project PIs helping to secure additional interviews to round out the demographic variation. We currently have N=26 interviews, and are reporting preliminary results even as we continue iteratively analyze and gather additional data.
In this paper we feature student voices. Three of our undergraduate researchers will present their findings with regards to how their interviewees entered engineering; what encounters shaped their path through an engineering degree program; and what aspirations they have come to develop, going forward. The project PIs will present contextual information and our analytic framing of the phenomena, and conclude with preliminary observations about how we can extend symbolic interactionist studies of student experience and occupational identification in ways that are consistent with current conversations about student pathways. Some of our early findings indicate that student pathways are non-deterministic, with students serving as active agents in determining how they navigate challenging encounters; specific ways in which family background and obligations shape the experiences and options open to certain populations (first gen; Hispanic; non-traditional students); and the extent to which student support services do and don’t impact student trajectories. Overall, our work affirms the major findings of the NAE Pathways study, while adding specificity to our understanding of how students navigate through these different pathways.
(Note: Our student authors will be added as we determine which students will be joining us in Montreal.)
The full paper will be available to logged in and registered conference attendees once the conference starts on
June 22, 2020, and to all visitors after the conference ends on June 26, 2021
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