Julie Trenor, instructional assistant professor and director of undergraduate student recruitment and retention at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, has received two grants to conduct research into the decisions of female students to select and persist in engineering majors. Specifically, she will explore the role that ethnicity and cultural background play in the students’ perceptions, motivation, and attitudes toward engineering, and the influence these factors have on their decisions to pursue engineering degrees.
The bulk of the funding comes from the Engineering Information Foundation. An additional $2,000 mini-grant is tied to Trenor’s recent selection for the National Science Foundation-funded Conducting Rigorous Research in Engineering Education Workshop, which trains engineering faculty in the methodology of educational research. Trenor was one of 22 participants selected to attend this workshop from a national pool of applicants.
In addition to the mini-grant, the workshop also provides a stipend for a research mentor selected by each participant. Trenor is partnering with UH Associate Professor of Educational Psychology Shirley Yu, who specializes in motivation for academic achievement, with a particular interest in female and ethnic minority students in mathematics and science.
Other collaborators on the project include Consuelo Waight, an assistant professor of human development & consumer sciences in the UH College of Technology, and Kathy Zerda, instructional assistant professor in the Cullen College of Engineering and director of the college’s PROMES Program.
“We anticipate that the issue of attrition among our female students is linked in part to ethnic and cultural values and beliefs,” said Trenor. “Our diverse students join us with background experiences that are assimilating, integrating and in some cases, clashing with, their selection of and persistence in studying engineering at the undergraduate level. We want to identify these background experiences and beliefs for our unique population so that we can better understand and meet their needs once they enroll in the Cullen College of Engineering.”
The study will have two components. One will be an online survey administered to female engineering students beginning in the fall. “Dr. Yu’s expertise in educational research methods will greatly contribute to the project,” said Trenor. “She will lead the development of the survey and data analysis.” The survey results will help Trenor develop questions for the second phase: interviews with study participants, which will be conducted in the spring.
“The first part of the study utilizes standard quantitative educational research methods, in this case, a closed-ended survey. The second component is something engineering faculty are much less comfortable with: a qualitative study. This is why the workshop was such valuable training,” said Trenor. “The qualitative component of the study will include interviews, where students will be asked about how their decisions to select and stay in engineering majors are shaped by their community, their family and their culture.”
Trenor expects the results from the study to further her work with college’s WELCOME Program (Women in Engineering Learning Community for Maximizing Excellence), as well as to improve recruitment and retention practices in the Cullen College of Engineering.
“When I started WELCOME, I found that the engineering education literature tends to treat women as one “minority” group, and that many women-in-engineering programs use a “one-size fits all” model,” she said. “But a lot of the initiatives that are successful for other program won’t necessarily work with our diverse student body and commuter population. This work has the potential to make significant contributions to gender-related engineering education literature due to the rich diversity of our student population compared to nearly all previous research.”