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Education, engineering team up on retention study

Researchers from the University of Missouri College of Education and partner institutions are exploring how ethnic and gender variables affect retention rates, goal setting, and satisfaction among engineering students. The team has tapped a member of the MU College of Engineering faculty to aid their efforts.

Heather Hunt headshot.

Heather Hunt’s involvement with the retention-based study began when Hang-Shim Lee, while earning her doctorate from MU, approached her for help on her dissertation, which dealt with the topic of women in engineering. Photo courtesy of Heather Hunt.

Heather K. Hunt, assistant professor of bioengineering, is working with the team, led by professors Lisa Flores (MU College of Education’s Department of Educational, School and Counseling Psychology) and Rachel Navarro (University of North Dakota’s Department of Counseling Psychology and Community Services), and including professors John-Paul Legarski of the University of North Dakota, Hang-Shim Lee from Oklahoma State University, and Patton Garriott of the University of Denver, on a five-year, National Science Foundation-funded study into “the longitudinal effects of social cognitive, cultural, personality and contextual factors on engineering students and workers satisfaction, engagement, and persistence as posited by Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT).”

Navarro serves as the co-principle investigator on the grant, with MU and North Dakota as the collaborative institutions.

The study, which recently reached the conclusion of its second year, is collecting data from 12 engineering colleges in the U.S. to determine if and how cultural, gender, and social cognitive variables contribute to the development of interests, intentions, and persistence behaviors, and if gender, ethnicity, and institutional type moderate those relationships in any way. SCCT is used to explain how career interests develop and how those interests are chosen. Moreover, it helps to explain what an individual thinks of as success in the chosen career; the key mechanisms are measured through their self-efficacy beliefs and outcome expectations.

Lisa Flores headshot

Lisa Flores’ previous work looked at the same idea at a Hispanic-Serving Institution in the Southwestern U.S. Photo courtesy of Lisa Flores.

“Really, the keys at the heart of the model are these two social cognitive variables,” Flores said. “Their confidence in their ability to complete engineering related tasks — if they engage in those tasks, what outcomes do they anticipate from them?”

This work builds off of an earlier paper published by Lee, Flores, Navarro, and Marlen Kanagui-Munoz that looked at the same idea at a Hispanic-Serving Institution in the Southwestern U.S. The research, published in the Journal for Vocational Behavior, found no differences in persistence — continuing down one’s chosen degree path in engineering — between Latino and white students, but it did find differences between men and women. The new project is meant to expand the data set by including a variety of institutions, allowing for greater comparison and broader viability.

“One of the key things, though, for underrepresented groups is the idea that expectations differ across groups,” Flores said. “What women expect in the engineering field may be different than men. If women expect negative experiences in the field, that might be enough to deter them.”

The eventual goal of the project is to allow for greater retention of female and minority engineering students by developing a model, backed by data, that illustrates best practices for intervention at potential problem areas along a student’s academic career path. Discovering exactly where those “hot spots” lie could be key to increasing retention in these groups.

“For me, from an engineering perspective, everything we’re doing now is the idea that if we can understand what all these relationships are among the variables and if we can have a good model that fits well nationally, then what we can do is essentially come up with a set of interventions we can apply,” Hunt said.

“At the more broad level, are there two or three things we can do, according to this model, that are these key points to really keep students in? From my side, I care about persistence. I care about them graduating and going into the workforce in engineering.”

Hunt’s involvement began when Lee, while earning her doctorate from MU, approached her for help on her dissertation, which dealt with the topic of women in engineering. Her familiarity with the project and with the research team, made Hunt a prime candidate for collaboration on the new study.

“There’s a lot of things that we’ve done that we couldn’t have done without her chiming in and providing perspective,” Flores said.

Hunt said she’s hopeful that the study will provide the data needed to convince administrators and faculty members to implement identified best practices.

“If we can say, ‘Here are five things we can do based on what the data has shown us,’ and those five things are going to be evidence-based best practices for teaching,” she said. “If we can do that, it will help everyone, and it will be easier to convince professors.”