Investigating Student Perceptions of an Engineering Department’s Climate:
The Role of Peer Relations
Diversity in engineering remains low despite decades of rhetoric and efforts to broaden participation and retention. Historically underrepresented groups, particularly women and people of color, enter engineering at lower rates and leave at substantially higher rates (Hurtado, Eagan & Chang, 2010). Previous explanations have included the “chilly climate” members of these groups find in engineering (Walton, Peach, Logel, Spencer & Zanna, 2015), but the role of peers in this dynamic is less well understood. To address this, we investigated how climate perceptions and peer relations contributed to the prediction of persistence and identification with engineering. Undergraduate engineering students (n=279) from a large public university participated anonymously in an online climate survey. Scales included Engineering Identity, Engineering Persistence, Peer Relations, and Faculty Support. Perceptions of welcoming (vs. hostile) climate for each of 14 different identity groups were individually assessed, resulting in scales for dominant (US-born, Male) and non-dominant (all other identities) reference groups. Additionally, students answered two open-ended questions: (1) If you could change one thing about [program name], what would it be?; and (2) What is the best thing about being a [program name] student?
A 2 (Reference Group) x 2(Gender) x 2 (White vs Student of Color) ANOVA found all groups perceived the engineering program to be more welcoming for dominant than non-dominant identity groups (p<001.). Multiple regression found Peer Relations (including academic and social relations) was an important mediator of the effects of climate for non-dominant groups, gender and faculty support on student persistence (8% of variance) and identity as engineers (20%). Tests of competing models showed that Faculty Support did not function as a mediator for any of the variables. Race had a significant independent effect on both Engineering Identity and Persistence.
Analysis of the open-ended items also highlighted the importance of peer relations and provided more information about aspects of peer relations valued by students. 25.7% of respondents named peer relations as the best thing about being a student in the program. Typical responses spoke of peers helping develop a “sense of comraderie” and “supportive community” where “everyone is willing to help each other out, whether it’s homework or studying.” Several responses also mentioned working in course-based groups, teams, or study groups as the best thing about being a student in the program.
Taken together, these results suggest peer relations is an important aspect of social climate that predicts both persistence in the major and identification with engineering. Although climate was rated less welcoming for non-dominant than dominant groups, its effects on these outcomes was mediated by academic and social relationships with peers. That it also mediated the effects of faculty support and gender suggests that efforts to improve peer relations may be a key part of an overall program to increase retention and identification among non-dominant students. Alternately, peer relations may be a particularly salient contributor to determining climate perceptions. Efforts to improve the departmental climate for non-dominant groups, with a focus on peer relationships, may positively impact engineering identity and persistence.
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