Researchers to examine what attracts, discourages Black students in engineering education

By: By Michael Staton - For The Sentinel-Progress
Catherine Mobley (right) looks on as Marisa Orr explains her approach to breaking down the quantitative data in the early stages of the research project.
Catherine Mobley is a professor in Clemson’s sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department.
Marisa Orr is an assistant professor in Clemson’s departments of engineering and science education and mechanical engineering.

PICKENS COUNTY — A team of Clemson researchers is using a $398,263 award from the National Science Foundation’s Broadening Participation in Engineering program to examine factors that both encourage and discourage Black students from pursuing education in engineering fields. Researchers will also examine how different academic pathways in engineering vary by gender and institution type for Black students.

Catherine Mobley, a professor in Clemson’s sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department and principal investigator on the project, said the research will examine institutional policies and practices that promote greater retention of Black students in engineering fields. She hopes to emerge with recommendations that higher education institutions can use to recruit more individuals from underrepresented groups into these fields.

Background research has shown that underrepresented groups face continuous barriers to engineering education and the engineering economy, Mobley said. She indicates that if the reasons why aren’t fully understood, society stands to lose a significant pool of human and social capital in the engineering workforce.

“It’s incredibly important to expand access to these fields for different student groups,” Mobley said. “If we learn what might cause someone to stay in or abandon the path to a career in a STEM field, we can get one step closer to ensuring that diverse groups are successful in these professions.”

Instead of solely focusing on success stories from fields including electrical, computer and mechanical engineering, the researchers hope to shed light on factors that contribute to attrition. Mobley said there is little data in the forms of interviews and firsthand accounts from students who opt out of engineering.

The researchers plan to address this challenge by employing unique data collection tools and identifying individuals who interact with students during the change-of-major process. Mobley said the researchers expect to gain valuable information by talking to students who have either remained in engineering or who have stepped off the engineering path. The team will also collect data from key informants at the four study institutions and through a content analysis of institutional documents and websites.

“We want to paint a full picture by investigating why these students left engineering; was it interest in other topics or was it a discouraging experience?” Mobley said. “Finding those students will be a challenge, but it will be worth it because it will strengthen our research findings.”

The interdisciplinary team will use the Multi-Institution Database for Investigating Engineering Longitudinal Development (MIDFIELD) to examine data from two historically black colleges and universities and two predominantly white institutions in the southeastern U.S. What the researchers learn from their initial analysis will inform how they shape the 100 in-depth interviews they will conduct with students and college administrators at these four institutions.

Marisa Orr, co-investigator and assistant professor in Clemson’s departments of engineering and science education and mechanical engineering, the MIDFIELD data largely motivated the current study. The extensive data set revealed that challenges in attracting and retaining Black students changed depending on the engineering discipline in question. A discipline could simultaneously excel in attracting Black students and struggle with retaining them or vice versa.

Orr’s examination of the data will help steer interview questions, but Mobley said issues that might be uncovered during in-person interviews will allow researchers to double back to data to examine those issues on the macro level. Orr expects that this mixed method approach will allow the researchers to enjoy a back and forth between data analysis and in-person interviews.

“In my research I answer a lot of the ‘what’ questions, so this is exciting because we will get to answer many more of the ‘why’ questions,” Orr said. “When we can tell a more convincing, complete story with multiple forms of data, the likelihood that we will support more positive change increases.”

The project team also includes three additional experts in engineering education research: Cynthia Waters of NC A&T University, Catherine Brawner of Research Triangle Education Consultants and Rebecca Brent of Education DesignsInc. The team will begin key informant, content analysis and student interviews in summer 2018. Analysis of interview data and work contrasting the data with MIDFIELD will run into 2021. The research is projected to be completed in summer 2021.

Catherine Mobley (right) looks on as Marisa Orr explains her approach to breaking down the quantitative data in the early stages of the research project.
https://www.sentinelprogress.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_16x9-project1.jpgCatherine Mobley (right) looks on as Marisa Orr explains her approach to breaking down the quantitative data in the early stages of the research project. Courtesy photos

Catherine Mobley is a professor in Clemson’s sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department.
https://www.sentinelprogress.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_Catherine-Mobley-2.jpgCatherine Mobley is a professor in Clemson’s sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department. Courtesy photos

Marisa Orr is an assistant professor in Clemson’s departments of engineering and science education and mechanical engineering.
https://www.sentinelprogress.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/web1_orr2018.jpgMarisa Orr is an assistant professor in Clemson’s departments of engineering and science education and mechanical engineering. Courtesy photos

By Michael Staton

For The Sentinel-Progress