The Organizational Climate Challenge: Promoting the Retention of Students from Underrepresented Groups in Doctoral Engineering Programs
Effective Years: 2022-2026
The ongoing lack of diversity in the engineering doctoral workforce remains a significant problem with far-reaching implications for the US economy. The long-term vitality of the US workforce relies on the full range of engineering career pathways being available to all Americans. A diverse STEM workforce is more creative and innovative. While the number of women completing STEM doctorates has risen, the proportion of women earning engineering doctorates remains low. And, in 2019, while 24.1% of engineering doctorates were earned by women, only 1.4% were earned by Hispanic, Black, and Native American women (no Native Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander women). Doctoral engineering attrition rates reveal a disproportionately high loss of students from groups historically underrepresented in STEM. The problem is not students’ inability to complete the Ph.D. degree requirements, but rather that talented students leave engineering doctoral programs before completing their doctorates. Student attrition results in a loss of human talent to the national endeavor of research and discovery at universities fueling US economic growth. Unwelcoming organizational climates in engineering doctoral programs likely contribute to this attrition. This project aims to examine the organizational climates of engineering doctoral programs to guide efforts that promote the persistence and retention of doctoral students in engineering.
The goal of this mixed-methods project is to examine doctoral students’ perceptions of the factors that impact their persistence in degree completion and the differences in experiencing those factors based on intersecting social categories. This project adopts an explicitly intersectional approach to the meaning and relevance of students’ belonging to multiple social categories, including gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation, considered within the context of engineering doctoral education. Drawing on organizational climate research and intersectionality theory, the project’s multidisciplinary team aims to use a student-centered approach to shed light on multiple climate factors (e.g., climate for diversity, climate for inclusion, student sense of belonging, etc.) by engaging with students from diverse groups. To achieve a comprehensive picture of departmental climate and persistence, which may differ by intersectional group, major, and institution type, iterative and complementary cycles of project implementation are planned over the four-year project period. In Year 1, the researchers aim to use findings from the quantitative pilot climate survey approach to inform the qualitative design. The team aims to repeat this process in Year 2 to develop, refine, and validate the final survey instrument, including a climate scale which will be sensitive enough to assess intersectional phenomena unique to students from diverse groups. The scale will be grounded in measurement invariance, in that factors will be measured in the same way across different groups to reveal similarities and differences between engineering doctoral student populations. In Years 3 and 4, the researchers plan to administer the final survey nationally and incorporate follow-up interviews with a subsample of survey respondents, using a mixed-methods approach. In partnership with the American Society for Engineering Education, the team plans to deploy the climate survey nationally to engineering doctoral students and to share survey findings with engineering deans.
This project is supported by NSF's EHR Core Research (ECR) program. The ECR program emphasizes fundamental STEM education research that generates foundational knowledge in the field. Investments are made in critical areas that are essential, broad and enduring: STEM learning and STEM learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM workforce development. The program supports the accumulation of robust evidence to inform efforts to understand, build theory to explain, and suggest intervention and innovations to address persistent.
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.