This Complete Research paper was motivated towards providing engineering students with a better opportunity to understand their major prior to declaration, thereby increasing the likelihood of informed major selections, decreasing the number of future major changes, and increasing the overall retention of engineering students within their majors. Numerous studies exist that focus on the major discernment process of engineering students, engineering identity formation of students, and motivation for enrolling in engineering programs. However, these studies lack sufficient investigation of specific parameters (e.g., course content, peer interactions, outside the classroom major exploration experiences) that are influential during the major discernment process. Further, these studies have typically included only students within their first-year of engineering study and do not continue to track major changes in future years despite noticeable attrition rates in second-year engineering students. Finally, prior research has typically focused on analyzing only quantitative data without supporting qualitative data (e.g., student interviews, open-ended surveys) that could provide better insight towards the thought process of students. Therefore, expanded research efforts are needed to address these knowledge gaps and provide a clearer understanding of the engineering major discernment process.
Expanding upon the current knowledge basis, the primary research objectives of this study were to (1) identify specific parameters that influence major discernment using both quantitative and open-ended qualitative data, (2) monitor major changes through the completion of the second-year of study, and (3) provide recommendations applicable to engineering programs that can help students make more informed major selections. The research approach and framework followed social cognitive career theory, where career development can be analyzed through relationships such as the development of academic and career interests, educational and career choices, as well as academic and career success. Major exploration opportunities were provided to students throughout their first-year of engineering study and included activities both associated with common First-Year Engineering (FYE) courses (e.g., departmental guest lectures, faculty mentored design projects, student panel discussions) and outside the classroom events unassociated with the FYE courses (e.g., major information sessions, academic and research laboratory tours, enrollment in technical elective courses). The major discernment process of students was monitored using a combination of participation data from major exploration opportunities, open-ended student surveys, and major discernment reflection papers (assigned through the FYE course). Students were classified according to their listed major at three different points in time: intended major at the start of the first-year of study, declared major at the end of the first-year of study, and declared major at the end of the second-year of study. Individual student experiences were classified as positive, neutral, or negative based on the qualitative data. This study was conducted over three academic years using two entering classes of engineering students and limited in scope to a single University with only students that expressed interest in majoring in civil or environmental engineering during their first or second-year of engineering study.
Students participating in more than one major exploration opportunity were found to have larger retention and addition rates within their major. While no individual major exploration event was consistently more effective in retaining or adding students, experiences where first-year engineering students interacted with older engineering students had the most value, followed by experiences which discussed career paths and/or post-graduation opportunities. Students retained or added within their major most commonly stated that their major selection was influenced by the broad variety of career paths within their field (thereby keeping more options available), ability to positively impact society through their career choices, positive interactions with faculty members during major exploration events, and/or interest in job opportunities within their field. Students added into a major most commonly reported changing majors after being inspired by one of their major exploration experiences. Students that left a major were found to have lower participation rates in the outside the classroom major exploration events and more frequently reported neutral or negative experiences. The paper provides a list of general recommendations when creating and implementing major exploration experiences for first-year engineering students that are applicable to any engineering major, such as offering a diverse array of opportunities throughout the academic year, focusing each event on different aspects of future academic and post-graduation experiences, and featuring events with smaller student-to-faculty ratios to minimize negative student experiences. Ultimately, this work provides the template for a larger and expanded future research study that would include all engineering majors.
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