Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Creating New Metaphors for Women Engineering Students through Qualitative Methods

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

Creating New Metaphors for Women Engineering Students through Qualitative Methods

Article excerpt

The ever-changing global market increasingly requires a technologically and scientifically skilled workforce for nations to remain competitive in the global economy (Campbell, 2002). In order to provide this skilled workforce, leaders from industry and government are calling for an increase in the number of graduates in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) fields, yet it comes at a time when American students' interest in these majors has declined (Duderstadt, 2008). Despite efforts to encourage more students to enter STEM fields, the percentage of students intending to enroll in these majors has dropped over the last decade and remains around 20% (College Board, 2010).

Even more concerning is the enrollment rate of women in the STEM fields. Women are entering college and earning more degrees than men earn, yet male students are twice as likely as female students to enter STEM fields are and twice as likely to earn a certificate or bachelor's degree in STEM fields (Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2010). Because they represent over 50% of undergraduates but only 17.5 % of engineering students (National Science Foundation, 2011), women have been identified as the "greatest potential source of new engineering talent" (Lord et al., 2009, p. 167).

In order to address this disparity between the percentages of female undergraduate students to female engineering students, it is important to understand why women are not seeking out engineering as a major. Unlike other majors, most students cannot choose to major in engineering overnight due to the sequential and linear nature of classes (George-Jackson, 2011). Overall, engineering students typically take more math and science classes in high school than non-STEM students, and female engineering students are more likely to have had these courses than male engineering students have (Yauch, 1999). Once in college, female engineering students earn the same GPAs as male engineering students, yet women are more likely to judge themselves as less successful in their degree programs than men are (Meinholdt & Murray, 1999).

Women chose to leave STEM fields because of experiences of being uncomfortable classroom settings and having difficult interpersonal relationships (Johnson, 2011). Models describing this phenomenon are often described as a pipeline or pathway; however, few retention models for engineering students have been developed (Veenstra, Dey, & Herrin, 2009). While the pipeline model to describe the pathway to engineering degrees is used for all students, the model for female engineering students has been characterized as a leaky pipeline (Blickenstaff, 2005). In this model, the loss of students along the pipeline is seen as naturally occurring, and few, if any, "patches" are suggested to lessen or stop these leaks.

The Pipeline Metaphor

Policy makers' efforts in the 1970s to solve national social problems elevated women (as well as racial/ethnic minorities) as a significant category to address the scientific and technological needs of the country. These efforts evolved to address economic concerns, and in the 1980s, these changes created a powerful and useful model of the U.S. educational system for STEM in the pipeline metaphor (Lucena, 2000).

Because "preparing to enter STEM majors and occupations is largely a sequential and liner process given the prerequisites that are required to advance in the sciences and remain in the STEM pipeline from year to year" (George-Jackson, 2011, p. 150), the pipeline metaphor served as a useful model to describe the STEM educational process. The pipeline metaphor explored the full educational system, starting as early as grade school through secondary school and ending with student earning their doctorate in STEM majors.

The pipeline metaphor identified behaviors of demographic subsets that interrupted the flow of engineers in the pipeline. By pinpointing these behaviors, systematic, institutional, and personal fixes could be developed to address these leaks (Lucena, 2000). …

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