Exploring the Experiences of Female Students in Introductory Project-Based Engineering Courses at Two- and Four-Year Institutions

Swan, Amy K., Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Rowan-Kenyon, Heather T., Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

This qualitative study explored the experiential and contextual factors that shaped female students' pathways into introductory project-based engineering classes at two community colleges and one four-year institution, as well as female students' experiences within and outside of these classes. The study was framed by Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT) (Lent, Brown & Hackett, 1996) and Bronfenbrenner's (1979) ecological systems theory. Findings were based on analyses of data gathered through multiple methods: observations; individual interviews with female students; focus group interviews with project teams; and document collection. The findings of this study revealed that while positive experiences with math or science were a likely pre-cursor to engineering interest, experiential learning appeared to be a more powerful force in fostering students' engineering interest. Specifically, participants developed an interest in engineering through academic, professional, and extracurricular engineering- and design-related activities that familiarized them with the tasks and skills involved in engineering work and helped them develop a sense of selfefficacy with regard to this work. Interest and self in turn, played a role in students' postsecondary educational decision-making processes, as did contextual factors including families and finances. This study's findings also showed that participants' project teams were a critically important microsystem within participants' ecological environments. Within this sometimes "chilly" microsystem, female students negotiated intrateam processes, which were in some cases affected by gender norms. lntrateam processes that influenced female students' project-based learning experiences included: interpersonal dynamics; leadership; and division of labor. This study also identified several ways in which the lived experiences of participants at the community colleges were different from, or similar to, those of participants at the four-year institution. In the classroom, similarities and differences were related to projects, learning outcomes, language and time, while outside of the classroom they were primarily linked to time and peer support. This study's findings suggest a need for expanded access to experiential learning opportunities and ongoing attention to the role of community colleges in engineering education. Study findings also point toward ways that engineering educators might attend to the intrateam processes identified, and better accommodate the needs of all students in project-based introductory courses.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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