Changing the extent to which first-year undergraduate engineering students identify with engineering may be an essential ingredient for improving retention. Research suggests that the degree to which a student is attached to or belongs to engineering as a discipline better explains retention-related outcomes than lack of interest and ability. As a result, identity frameworks have proven useful for furthering understanding of engineering retention. One study looked at patterns of value that students assign to earning an engineering degree and suggested that understanding these patterns would be useful in improving student retention. The researchers concluded that “a primary differentiating feature of these patterns is whether or not participants choose engineering because it is consistent with their personal identify or sense of self”. Another study illustrated the value of professional identity and the need for “students [to have] opportunities to engage” in forming a professional identity. A third study showed how students determined their engineering identity by learning how to recognize qualities of an engineer. Collectively, these studies suggest that the degree to which students identify with engineering as a major is likely to be a useful factor in improving retention in engineering.
While qualitative studies provide rich insights into engineering identity, evaluating engineering identity for hundreds or thousands of first-year students requires a quantitative instrument. Therefore, we are currently developing a quantitative tool for measuring engineering identity. It consists of obtaining information on eight scales to measure different aspects of the extent to which a student identifies with engineering. Three of the scales on the instrument relate to fit, links and sacrifice among engineering college students. Fit refers to the extent to which students perceive their abilities as matching the demands of the engineering college major. Links is represented by the ties engineering students have to others affiliated with the major (e.g., peers, faculty). Finally, sacrifice is represented by the prospective losses students believe they would incur in leaving engineering (e.g., loss of opportunities and esteem). Each is measured quantitatively using seven items (links and sacrifice) or eight items (fit), which are answered on a 5-point Likert-type scale. These measures have good internal consistency reliability (α = .78 to .88). Sample items include: “Engineering is a good match for me” (fit); “I have ties to others in engineering” (links), and “I would sacrifice a lot if I left engineering” (sacrifice). This research paper evaluates three different scales used in measuring how well first-year engineering students identify as engineers.
The paper will describe three of the eight scales used in the qualitative tool in the study, fit, links, and sacrifice, and provide results from giving the scales to approximately 2,000 engineering first-year students at a large public institution. The intent of the paper is to clarify answers to two questions: 1) How do engineering students interpret three scales related to identity frameworks; and 2) What has been learned by giving these three scales to first-year engineering students.
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