The Nature of Engineering Work: Curricular Messaging and Alignment with Diverse Undergraduate Students’ Values, Interests, and Engineering Intentions
Effective Years: 2021-2024
As part of an undergraduate education in engineering, students typically encounter courses that emphasize core engineering technical skills but neglect the "comprehensive engineering skills" such as the ability to collaborate, to be creative, and to exhibit ethical thinking that are needed to address complex societal problems. Engineering education plays a major role in shaping students' understanding of the nature of engineering work which includes such "comprehensive skills." Thus, it is important to understand when, where, and how students encounter "messages" about the nature and scope of engineering work. This project hopes to investigate how engineering curricula and instruction represent engineering practice and how these representations align with students' values and interests, with the goal of understanding how these messages affect students’ sense of belonging and intentions to persist in the field.
The systematic study of two contrasting engineering disciplines will generate greater understandings of the effect of student perceptions of the content of engineering curricula on diverse students' perceptions of the field, their sense of fit, and their future plans. Existing research has focused, rightly, on students' perceptions of campus climate and interactions with faculty and peers, but has largely neglected study of the curricular content itself. Findings from this theory-driven, mixed-method design will extend and complement existing research on undergraduates' motivations for studying engineering and their impact on their connection and commitment to the field. By triangulating data from student and instructor interviews, classroom observations, and census surveys of students in two engineering disciplines, this study will extend a limited literature on diverse motivations for engineering study. Providing future engineers with comprehensive engineering skills is critical to preparing professionals to engage productively with complex sociotechnical problems and with stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds. Additionally, a deeper understanding of what curricular messaging communicates to students about the nature of engineering work, about who engineers are, and about the skill set needed for innovative problem solving will support clearer communication of the value of this broader range of engineering skills. Such curricular messaging may attract a more diverse population of students who value socially relevant problems and may contribute positively to these students' sense of belonging in the field and desire to persist in their studies and into engineering careers. This project is funded by the EHR Core Research (ECR) program, which supports work that advances fundamental research on STEM learning and learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.