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What Helps and Hinders Underrepresented Engineering Majors?

A USF team led by College of Education Professor Gladis Kersaint will research this question with support from a $1.5 million NSF grant.


Professor Gladis Kersaint (center in green), principal investigator with her team, (l-r) Assistant Professor Kingsley Reeves, College of Engineering; Assistant Professor Chrystal A. S. Smith, Research; Anchin Center Associate Director George MacDonald, research and grant development; Assistant Professor Hesborn Wao, USF Health; and Anchin Center Senior Researcher Reginald Lee.

By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Dec. 2, 2014) – What does it take for women and minorities to choose an engineering major and stick with it through graduation? What is it in engineering program culture that helps or hinders the process? USF researchers want to know.

“Sophomore year seems to be the point where most women, in particular, switch out of engineering,” said USF College of Education Professor Gladis Kersaint, who is serving as principal investigator (PI) on a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to study this issue. “Overall, high ability students are opting out. If there are systemic issues, we want to know what they are and do something about them, and not have those things be barriers to success.”

Judging from the statistics, women and minorities appear to face great challenges as their numbers do not correlate with those of their percentages in the general population. According to government statistics in the latest study available from the National Science Foundation (2010), “Women are less likely than men to enroll full time as undergraduates. Underrepresented minorities (blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians) are less likely than whites and Asians to enroll full time.” They enter engineering programs in low numbers and a large percentage switch majors before graduation.

For those women and minorities who successfully earn their engineering degrees, such things as social capital and cultural models of engineering success (CMES) make a contribution. USF’s NSF grant will support research into the ways this is the case and how they interrelate.

A Strong Interdisciplinary Team

The four-year longitudinal study that received the funding, “The Effects of Social Capital and Cultural Models on the Retention and Degree Attainment of Women and Minority Engineering Undergraduates," is led by Kersaint along with her interdisciplinary team of co-PIs, USF Research Assistant Professor Chrystal A. S. Smith from the Department of Anthropology; USF Health Assistant Professor Hesborn Wao; David C. Anchin Center Associate Director for Research and Grant Development George MacDonald; and Anchin Center Senior Social and Behavioral Researcher Reginald Lee. Advisors for the project are Sociology Professor John Skvoretz and Assistant Professor Kingsley Reeves from the College of Engineering.

They will be looking at first-year engineering undergraduates at 11 diverse universities across three states and one U.S. territory. These will include research tier one and large state and predominately White Institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and private universities.

“We will examine the different effects of engineering program context on students,” Kersaint said. “We will also investigate their perceptions about and use of the various resources that their universities provide such as learning support systems and research opportunities.”

The USF team’s research goal is to first of all identify the effects of social capital and CMES on the retention and degree attainment of women and minorities in engineering, and then examine the relationship between these two factors.

Online surveys will provide the quantitative data and face-to-face and video interviews will provide the qualitative data needed. Survey responses will provide data on the availability of resources as well as how accessible they are and whether they are, in fact, used. Further analysis will examine how these factors relate to the decision to pursue engineering undergraduate degrees, student retention and degree attainment.

“Quantitative data will be weighed more with respect to addressing the research questions and the qualitative data will contextualize and enhance our understandings of the quantitative findings,” Kersaint said.

Looking Deeper into Beneficial Factors

She pointed out that there is consensus that social capital benefits specific societal groups, that is, primarily the influential majority. However traditionally under-represented groups such as women and minorities in STEM often miss out on those benefits. Indeed, studies have shown that women and minorities in STEM disciplines are often unaware of the “unofficial” routes and strategies to achieve success unless their advisors, faculty and peers share this information.

“It has been found that mentoring, social connections, learning styles and changing identity can play a consequential role for those students who we are calling ‘persisters,’” Smith said. She gave the example of participation in professional societies such as the Society for Women Engineers, National Society of Black Engineers and Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers as organizations that help reduce isolation. “They also establish connections that provide beneficial resources and insider knowledge for women and minorities in engineering,” she said.

Cultural experiences, parents, teachers and peers comprise the cultural models that impact us all, but we are also influenced by the wider society.

“When an individual or group is exposed to different environments, their ‘cultural models’ are altered,” Kersaint points out. “When it comes to engineering, we’re talking about beliefs about how to become a successful student, how the teacher-student relationship should function and how education contributes to making an individual a better person. This can vary by gender and ethnicity and those beliefs may conflict with a new environment.”

Experiences and "Insider Knowledge"

Despite stellar academic preparation, such conflicts may contribute to the feeling of “not fitting in” or a “lack of belonging,” Kersaint says. “We also see heightened anxiety due to the fear of negative stereotyping, hyper-competitiveness and perceived discrimination which increase feelings of isolation.” These experiences may lead to the likelihood of switching from engineering to other majors.

Kersaint and her team contend that “while incoming engineering undergraduates have varying forms and levels of social capital and CMES, women and minorities who acquire or develop more social capital, i.e., networks of useful relationships and material resources, are more likely to attain the ‘insider knowledge’ that allows them to successfully negotiate differences between their culture and their program’s culture, making them more likely to persist than their counterparts who do not.

The study will look at a subsample of women and minorities at the selected universities during the fall semester of their second year, when the initial interviews are conducted and in the spring semester of their fourth year, when the follow-up interviews take place.

“There’s a growing body of literature exploring the relationship of culture and engineering education,” said Smith.

MacDonald added, “With this study we are merging the best of advanced IRT analytics from the discipline of education with cognitive anthropology. This positions our study at the forefront of theory-driven methodological advances within the cognitive social sciences as well as STEM education research.”

In the process, the USF team will be breaking new ground.

“This research is innovative because we are using a multidisciplinary approach to investigate how social capital and CMES increase the retention of women and minority undergraduates in engineering,” Kersaint said. “Our research will make significant contributions to STEM education.”

Plans to Share Findings

Among those contributions are findings “that can be used to transform engineering culture and improve interventions to broaden the participation of women and minorities in STEM fields,” she said.

In addition, the team’s annual written reports, interactive videoconferencing and collaboration on evidence-based action plans will be useful to the schools’ faculties, advisors and diversity personnel.

Smith shared, “We will also impact a broad audience by disseminating our experiences, our theoretical approaches, whatever new methodologies we encounter and our overall findings to STEM education researchers, practitioners, policy makers, and the general public. We’ll be using the scholarly articles we publish in peer-review journals, along with the white papers we produce and our outreach to national and regional media. We’re also developing a project Web site. Plus we intend to conduct interactive workshops at annual professional conferences such as the American Education Research Association, American Anthropological Association, and American Society for Engineering Education. We can’t wait to get the word out far and wide on how best to address STEM education policies.”

Kersaint has served as PI or co-PI on a number of initiatives aimed at enhancing the experiences of STEM students from kindergarten through graduate school. She is currently serving as PI on the “Effects of STEM/ICT Aspirants’ High School Experience on STEM and ICT Course Taking” that examines students’ experiences with, perceptions of, and thoughts about what influenced their STEM/ICT course-taking and persistence.

She asserted, “If you want to diversify, you have to look at your institutional environment, the nature and effectiveness of your support systems and ultimately we hope to come up with insights that can be emulated in other settings.”

Smith explained, “One reason our partners signed up is that they were interested in learning more and they were willing to review their efforts through different lenses. We’re hoping to bring these students from outsiders to insiders. We want to assure all students have a rich and positive experience.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563


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