Whether knowingly or not, students choose to become part of a disciplinary community when they choose their major. This membership comes alongside a set of written and unwritten rules, expectations, and responsibilities. The process by which students learn these membership requirements, referred to as socialization, is a socially driven affair. Students may gain this knowledge from peers, senior students, mentors, or faculty, all of whom constitute socializing agents. For many students, this process can begin before they even arrive at school through interactions with their parents, teachers, or college faculty. The information and opinions that students gain from these pre-college interactions have potentially significant effects on their choice of university, major, and specialization. Once students arrive to their university, their socialization experiences can have continued effects not just on their academic choices, but on their social and professional lives as well. Furthermore, students begin to make decisions regarding their own role as socializing agents towards junior students and their peers through mentoring and leadership positions. These decisions, and subsequently the socializing interactions that help to motivate them, have a significant impact on students’ identity and sense of belonging within their discipline. There is an established link in engineering education literature between identity and persistence and as a result, understanding these socialization experiences and the identity development that follows holds substantial importance for engineering educators and administrators alike.
The purpose of this qualitative study is to investigate the role of interaction with socializing agents for first-year STEM students at a large research-intensive institution in the Southeast United States. The student population for this study consists of first-year chemistry, biochemistry, and chemical engineering students. This work seeks to add to an existing body of literature on socialization with an exploration of the socialization experiences of fifteen students, as well as expanding the literature by comparing the socialization experiences of engineering and science students in their first year of undergraduate study. This cross-comparative angle is noticeably absent from the literature and holds potentially significant insight into the different socialization options and experiences among various groups of STEM students and the influence that this has on their choice of discipline. Understanding these differences may also provide some understanding of how the disciplinary cultures vary within STEM and the impact that this has on students. This knowledge provides a basis for reflection and potential improvements in STEM departments around the United States. As such, this work provides benefits to STEM faculty, administrators, and students themselves as they work to find their own place within their newly acquired disciplinary communities. With national calls for greater numbers of STEM graduates juxtaposed against less-than-desirable retention rates, furthering the understanding of how students arrive at their choice of major is a crucial first step towards improving the throughput of STEM programs nationwide.
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