Prior research shows that engineering students with low feelings of belongingness tend to switch to non-technical majors. With the understanding that aspects of student motivation, identity, and personality, as well as their academic performance, affect their sense of community in engineering, this study seeks to assess these student attributes over time. The context for this study is a single civil engineering program that is undergoing both curricular and cultural changes as part of an NSF-funded project. The data and findings presented here are part of a larger study of how student attitudes and beliefs change during their experiences in a curriculum that is different from the status quo. The focus of this paper is on students’ sense of belonging within their courses, major and university, and how those perceptions differ based on student demographics and year in the program.
Data collected for this study include responses to a survey designed to assess the current civil engineering students’ motivation, attitudes and beliefs about their courses, department, and university. The survey, which was adapted from a prior NSF-funded project, included eight constructs: sense of community, time-oriented motivation, goal orientation, career outcome expectations, grit, identity, agency beliefs and Big 5 personality traits. Subscales for students’ sense of community (which is the focus of this paper) were sense of community within their current engineering course, their engineering major and university.
Undergraduates were invited to complete the survey during lab courses in which they were enrolled during the Fall and Spring semesters. Of the total number of students in the program, 92.2% completed the survey (86% White and 80% male, which is representative of enrollment in the department). Quantitative data analyses included descriptive statistics, inferential statistics (ANOVA) to compare the factor means by gender and race and by year in the program.
Interviews were conducted with a subset of the survey participants (n=9) from a range of classes and demographics during the last two weeks of each semester. The interview questions pertaining to students’ perceptions of belongingness are included in this paper, although other questions explored students’ beliefs about identity and their perceptions of their future in engineering. Interviews were analyzed using open coding, with codes organized into categories and themes.
Quantitative results showed that mean scores for all three belongingness sub-constructs increase as students’ time in the program increases, with the exception of juniors having the highest score for sense of belonging at the university level. The largest increases in sense of belonging at the course, major and institution levels were between sophomore and junior year. Some factors of belongingness were significantly lower for non-majority student groups. Qualitative analyses revealed that students’ perceptions of belongingness were affected by positive learning experiences, connecting with civil engineers in different contexts, making personal connections and having a sense of solidarity with others in the program. Perceptions of not belonging were affected by students selecting this major to fulfill others’ expectations, not meeting instructors’ expectations, and a lack of role models for females.
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