Why I Am An Engineering Major: A Cross-Sectional Study of Undergraduate Students

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Conference Proceeding

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According to a recent report 1 K-12 students tend to like mathematics and science. Further, in a survey of desirable STEM careers the students selected engineering with very high frequency which was matched only by nursing in terms of student selection as a desirable STEM career 1 . Yet, when the K-12 students were asked if they would like to work in a career that applies mathematics and science a majority of the students responded “no” indicating that there is a disconnect between their career preferences, expectations, aspirations, and their understanding of engineering as a career. These results led us to wonder what influences a student to be an engineering major.

We hypothesized that students become engineering majors because they like to work on problems and develop solutions. Similarly, we anticipated students want to be nurses because they like to help people (this is a separate research project that is currently under development). We posit even though engineering involves substantial application of math and science the primary goal is to identify and work on authentic problems and develop meaningful solutions which overshadows that necessity to apply math and science. Further, we speculate that success in engineering requires the application of multiple other skills such as communication, collaboration, creativity, computing, etc. which are likely to dilute the thought of engineering as a career in which people focus on the application of mathematics and science. Finally, we predicted that there would be shifts in the answers based on experience, with first year engineering students holding different views than fourth year students.

Using the report 1 as a reference we developed an online based survey which included a combination of selected and free response items. We distributed the survey to the undergraduate engineering students at multiple institutions in the United States. We began by asking the students to share why they are engineering majors in a free response question. Specifically we sought evidence to determine who influenced the students’ choice of engineering as a major, their motivation for pursuing engineering as a major, how much they like math and science, and how well they do at math and science. We also sought to determine what they like or do not like about math and science. We included an item to determine the students’ involvement in extracurricular activities that may be aligned with engineering. In addition to the engineering major focus survey we also gathered demographic data.

Our analysis of over 1,300 completed surveys revealed our participants were most interested in being engineers to solve problems, because they like math and science, were greatly influenced by parents to be an engineering major, and had above average success with mathematics and science with an alignment with their liking for math and science. About 80 percent know someone outside of school who is an engineer, and about 40 percent had engaged in out of school activities that are associated with engineering. Implications and recommendations for future research are shared.

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