Increasing the participation of underrepresented students, including first-generation college students, in engineering plays a central role in sustaining the U.S. research and innovative capacity. Diversity continues to be recognized as an asset in engineering, and as the demographics of the domestic population continues to shift, the source of engineering workforce must shift as well to include more diverse individuals. However, we also know that the culture of engineering has an implicit assumption about who can be and who is recognized as an engineer. Whereas enculturation in to the engineering community of practice requires that students take on roles, behaviors, and attitudes that are defined and shared within the community, there is also a complex relationship between participation in a community of practice and identity. Diverse students must not only author an identity as an engineer but also must grapple with how that identity, historically constructed as white and masculine, becomes a part of how they see themselves.
Prior research has found that students come into engineering with a moderate engineering identity. These students have begun the process of seeing themselves as engineers by choosing engineering as their college major. The role identity of an engineer has been measured through three constructs i.e., interest in the subject, recognition by others, and beliefs about one’s performance/competence. In this study, we seek to understand how these measures of identity predict students’ grit. Previous research studies have demonstrated that grit, a personality trait, is predictive of academic retention, grade point average, and educational attainment. Grit is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Specifically, grit: persistence of effort was found to be a significant predictor of 1- and 2-year engineering retention, after controlling for GPA. However, the equity of this measure for underrepresented students has also been questioned. In this research study, we examine how first-generation college students’ engineering identity and sense of belongingness in engineering serve as mediators for students’ grit in order to understand how this popular measure might play into students’ persistence of effort and consistency of interest.
We used data from a large-scale survey, Intersectionality of Non-normative Identities in the Cultures of Engineering (InIce). InIce was completed by 2,916 first-year engineering college students enrolled in four institutions across the United States—72% non-first-generation college students, 20% first-generation college students, and 8% who did not report. The survey measured attitudinal profiles of belongingness in engineering, identity constructs, grit, and demographic information. We used structural equation modeling to test the hypothesis that engineering identity constructs and belongingness serve as mediators for students measures of grit: persistence of effort and grit: consistency of interest. Results support previous structural model of engineering identity for the first-generation college student population. Engineering identity was found to have a positive direct effect on students sense of belongingness. Both engineering identity and belongingness have a positive direct effect on grit: consistency of effort. However, engineering identity and belongingness were not significant predictors of grit: consistency of interest. Additionally, belongingness is also a mediator between engineering identity and grit: persistence of effort. These results begin to uncover how grit is not a stand-alone measure, that is, some students have it while others do not. Grit: persistence of effort, for first-generation college students, is present when they see themselves as the kinds of people that can do engineering and feel a sense of belongingness within the field. The results of this work may highlight ways to support grit development in first-generation college students.
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