Virginia Tech is the co-recipient of a $499,990 three-year National Science Foundation grant to study how cooperative education and related on-the-job experiences affect female undergraduate engineering students.
The research team will investigate the hypothesis that women in formal engineering programs who participate in work related to their field of study during their undergraduate education have higher self-efficacy and are more likely to graduate with a degree in their chosen field. Rachelle Reisberg, director of Women in Engineering at Northeastern University is principal investigator and Carol J. Burger, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Virginia Tech, is a co-principle investigator. Working with Reisberg and Burger are colleagues from the Rochester Institute of Technology and the University of Wyoming.
The study, Pathways to Work Self-Efficacy and Retention of Women in Undergraduate Engineering, is one of the first to investigate how co-op opportunities and other formal work experience programs impact the retention rate of female undergraduate engineering students. In addition, the study will examine programs, such as mentoring, advising, and academic living communities, to see how they contribute to self-efficacy and retention.
“There is a great need to identify the factors that contribute to retaining female engineering students through graduation, and the pathways study will empirically examine the links among pre-existing demographic conditions, supports – such as mentorships – and three forms of self-efficacy – work, career, and academic – on retention” said Joseph Raelin, the Asa S. Knowles Chair of Practice-Oriented Education at Northeastern University.
Currently, women are underrepresented in engineering. They make up only 18.6 percent of engineering bachelor degree recipients and, in 2006, held only 11 percent of engineering positions.
Over 95 percent of engineering students at Northeastern and all students at the Rochester Institute of Technology participate in cooperative education; while both the University of Wyoming and Virginia Tech do not require the experience, and thus serve as comparison schools for statistical purposes.
The study results will provide important data that will point to ways in which engineering schools might improve female retention rates. Self-efficacy as a determining factor of academic success will be thoroughly examined, resulting in an in-depth analysis of how this variable affects whether a female student continues as an engineering student, explores another degree option at the institution, or drops out.
Undergraduate students at the Virginia Tech College of Engineering will complete surveys about their co-op experiences. The survey data will be compared with data from schools where co-op and internships are required for graduation. The researchers will share information with the wider engineering community about best practices that will help recruit and retain female students to engineering.