UW Receives NSF Grant to Retain Undergraduate Women Engineering Students

October 22, 2008

The University of Wyoming College of Engineering and Applied Science is the co-recipient of a $500,000, three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study how cooperative education and related on-the-job experiences affect female undergraduate engineering students. 

UW will work with colleagues at Northeastern University (NU), Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), and Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University (VT). A research team will investigate whether or not women in formal engineering programs who participate in work related to their field of study as undergraduates have higher self-efficacy and are more likely to graduate with a degree in their chosen field.

UW's David Whitman, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is principal investigator and Jerry Hamann, Department Computer Science head at UW, is co-principal investigator.

The study, "Pathways to Work Self-Efficacy and Retention of Women in Undergraduate Engineering," is one of the first to investigate how cooperative opportunities and other formal work experience programs influence the retention rate of women undergraduate engineering students.

Additionally, the study will examine programs such as mentoring, advising and academic living communities to see how they contribute to self-efficacy and retention.

Whitman says the UW College of Engineering and Applied Science has maintained a variety of efforts to increase the number of females in engineering.

"However, over the past decade, the percentage of females in our undergraduate programs has dropped from 21 percent to 14 percent," Whitman says. "We need to continue to work on projects that identify the factors that contribute to retaining female engineering students through graduation. This study is one such project."

Nationally, women now are underrepresented in engineering, comprising only 18.6 percent of engineering bachelor degree recipients and, in 2006, held only 11 percent of engineering positions.

"Several studies have shown that female undergraduates studying engineering lose their sense of self-efficacy during the course of the program," said Rachelle Reisberg, director of Women in Engineering at Northeastern. "It is important to identify what factors, both academic and social, will help keep these women focused and confident in their abilities and eventually lead them to a successful career as an engineer."

More than 95 percent of engineering students at Northeastern and all students at RIT participate in cooperative education; while both UW and VT do not require it 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 in engineering, explores other degree options or drops out.

Hamann points out that "this project was initiated in part by UW's participation in the Hewlett Foundation Engineering Schools of the West Initiative, which has focused on enhancing participation of underrepresented student populations in engineering and applied science."

For more information about this project, call Whitman at (307) 766-6646, or e-mail whitman@uwyo.edu.

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