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Do multiple degree pathways lead students on path to success?

Researcher Team

three female first-year engineering students work on their robot in their honors classFirst-year students work on their robot project in their Fundamentals of Engineering for Honors course. Researchers are investigating whether different degree pathways might have unintended negative influences on students’ beliefs and identities.

Many engineering degree programs offer multiple introductory pathways in an effort to increase recruitment and retention of diverse students, but experts say this approach may have hidden limitations.

In a new study funded by the National Science Foundation, researchers from The Ohio State University College of Engineering will investigate how different pathways intended to increase diversity in engineering may fail to achieve this goal due to unintended negative influences on students’ beliefs and identities. The three-year project has earned $574,270 through NSF’s Education and Human Resources (EHR) Core Research Program.

“The assumption is that these pathways are helpful and productive, but there’s not much research about whether or not they work,” said Emily Dringenberg, principal investigator on the project and an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education (EED).

Multiple pathways are often used in higher education to increase access and affordability for students, and commonly include honors versions of introductory courses, classes at community colleges or alternative math starting point programs. The concern, Dringenberg says, is that these pathways may be similar in structure to educational tracking in K-12, which has shortcomings. 

Emily DringenbergDringenberg“There has been extensive work in K-12 that this idea of separating students on different tracks or separating them based on their abilities or previous achievements is not productive and just perpetuates social inequity,” she said. “Students in less prestigious tracks have fewer opportunities and often develop beliefs that they are less capable. So this is the gap and we want to better understand if any of these similar patterns are happening in higher education across these pathways.”

The project will involve a qualitative, exploratory study that will collect interview data on the beliefs and identities of first-year engineering students with respect to smartness and engineering. Participants will be enrolled in the same introductory engineering courses across six distinct institutionalized pathways: an honors program, a residential program, a general engineering enrollment program, an alternative math starting point program, a regional campus and a community college.

Researchers say the goal of the study isn’t to drastically change the system, but to improve it. Their findings could potentially influence policy recommendations locally and nationally.

“Once we understand how these different pathways impact views or beliefs on smartness and engineering identity, then we can structure support around any holes we might find,” said co-PI Rachel Kajfez, also an assistant professor in EED. “These pathways need to exist for a variety of reasons—financial, life timing, flexibility—but if there is some type of negative impact, we want to be able to put some supplements in place to really support those students.”

For students who are interested in engineering, the beliefs they hold about their own ability or “smartness” is critical to their success, said Dringenberg.

Rachel KajfezKajfez“This idea of ‘are you smart enough’—it’s a constant question that keeps coming up in engineering,” added Graduate Research Associate Amy Kramer. “What we’ve seen in some preliminary work we’ve done is that people define smartness very differently. When you talk about intelligence, people associate that with your GPA, or some sort of standardized test score. But when you talk about smartness, it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

This is the first grant the EED has received from the EHR Core Research Program, an impressive accomplishment for a department that was just established in 2015.

“EHR Core is fundamental research,” said Dringenberg. “This funding shows we’re not just doing curriculum development and those sort of things that people often associate with engineering education.”

The project team will be expanding in the near future. Interested graduate students may contact Kajfez at kajfez.2@osu.edu.

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu