Pursuing a STEM degree, especially engineering, is grimly portrayed in STEM culture as surviving through shared suffering and hardships (Godfrey & Parker, 2010; Wolffram et al., 2009) or as “chilly” (Morris & Daniel, 2008), especially for underrepresented students. If the purpose of education is to prepare students to be successful in school and beyond, then we must understand how students are successful. An alternative to negatively positioning students – what students are missing or need to survive – is to positively position students by studying how to support student success. Rather than identifying barriers to success, we can study the positive factors for student success. Therefore, this study reports how students experienced success and the factors they attributed to success.
Broadly, this study sought to understand what constituted success, the factors students attributed to success, and how students from different groups experienced success. One overarching goal of this study was to describe student success as defined by engineering students. This study aimed to better understand how engineering students experience and view success both in the classroom and beyond. More precisely, this work investigated what students identified as successful, how the meaning of success changed over time, and the factors and characteristics students attributed to success and being successful. This work emphasized qualitative methods to richly capture the essence of success by understanding student experiences in depth. Thereby, this work mapped the multiple paths to student success by describing how chemical engineering student experiences of success varied across GPA, gender, and race. The research questions that guided the investigation of student success and how they experienced success differently were:
1. What are chemical engineering students’ experiences of success and being an engineer?
a. How do chemical engineering students’ experiences differ by race and gender?
2. How do chemical engineering students position themselves as successful engineers?
This work followed a phenomenographic approach that implemented a qualitative research design and multiple methods to answer the research questions. Participants were recruited from upper-level (3xxx- & 4xxx) chemical engineering courses level and given an incentive ($10 Amazon gift card) for participating in the survey and interview.
The multiple methods used in this study were: an online survey (Qualtrics), and semi-structured interviews following an interview protocol. The Qualtrics survey collected the students’ consent, demographic information (race, gender, GPA, rank), and scores from two validated instruments: grit and engineering identity. Semi-structured interviews conducted over 1-3 hours captured the students’ experiences of success following a tailored interview protocol. Each student was virtually interviewed and recorded using Zoom. The recorded interview was transcribed and shared with the participant for member checking. The constant comparative method (CCM) was utilized to enrich the quality of data measurement and analysis; data collection and analysis occurred simultaneously.
The member-checked transcript was analyzed in multiple ways following a phenomenographic approach. First the transcript was thematically analyzed and iteratively coded (pre-coded and indexed). After comparing the differences in student experiences by gender and race, the positioning diamond was applied.
Students portrayed success as multi-faceted with a range of meanings. Collectively, the students’ understanding of success changed at least once during their collegiate studies. While initially positioning success as equating to getting good grades, students later identified other factors to success and (re)positioned success as obtaining their degree or being employed as an “engineer.” Additionally, students positioned success as accomplishing goals, feeling gratified, or fostering the success for others. Success was experienced and expressed in different ways across gender and race. The summation of actions that students attributed to success demonstrate how they self-identify and are recognized by members of the community as successful.
For the field of engineering education to become more inclusive beyond the majority white male student, the experiences of underrepresented groups must be better understood. Hearing the stories of these students can inform policies and educators to better understand how students conceptualize success in academic settings.