This recently initiated research, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Engineering Education and Centers, investigates the motivations driving members of the service organization Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA) in the theoretical context of identity and social cognitive theory. As a rare example of a professional engineering organization with a roughly balanced gender ratio among its membership, EWB-USA provides a strategic research site for unpacking gendered motivations and identity formations in engineering.

Females are underrepresented in STEM fields. This is true for student and professional cohorts. Past research suggests that recruitment, not retention, is the problem for females in university engineering programs. In contrast to this, female engineering professionals experience higher attrition rates than do their male counterparts. This dual problem of recruitment and retention means that capable female engineers leave or never enter the profession, disproportionately contributing to the shortage of engineers. As a result, this research will consider an extended STEM pipeline that includes both undergraduates and professionals, recognizing the importance of not only recruiting but also retaining diverse genders in STEM.

Social cognitive theory proposes that self-efficacy and expected outcomes form the basis for professional identity and motivation. This research will test social cognitive theory as a framework for attracting diverse groups to engineering. Specifically, it proposes that participation in EWB-USA changes the expected outcomes of engineering—from Dilbert to the engineer of 2020. In addition, it provides career scaffolding that helps members navigate careers. Both of these aspects are hypothesized to be particularly attractive and beneficial to females, which in turn is hypothesized to explain the gender ratios observed in the EWB-USA membership.

This project proposes a multi-method approach. The first research phase is primarily qualitative and consists of data collection through semi-structured focus groups, interviews, and written responses to open-ended questions. We will conduct 28 interviews of female and male students and professionals involved with EWB-USA. These interviews will contain open-ended questions aimed at understanding the motivations for joining EWB, what they gain from their membership in the organization, what they believe to be lacking in their education, and how their membership has changed them. 16 focus groups will be held with female, male, and mixed gender groups, students and professional groups, and EWB and non-EWB groups. The participants in these focus groups will be asked many of the same questions and will be asked to vote on the most important and least important aspects of what the group discussed. Participants in both the interviews and focus groups will be asked to write a description of an EWB member, engineer, and themselves to determine perceptions of engineering identity and motivation, and differences in these generalizations for the various cohorts. In addition, at a series of EWB-USA meetings, EWB-USA members will be asked to write responses to open-ended questions regarding identities and motivations. This data will be transcribed and coded in QSR NVivo to analyze emergent trends. In the second phase of the research, this qualitative data will be used as the foundation for a quantitative survey that will be distributed to the memberships of EWBUSA, the Society of Women Engineers, the American Society of Civil Engineers, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

This research hypothesizes that the expected outcomes of engineering will vary among the targeted research cohorts, and that EWB-USA members will report important career scaffolding experiences due to EWB-USA participation. This new knowledge will be of use in the design of evidence-based university curriculum and industry programs to increase the participation of females in engineering.

Javernick-Will, A.Kaminsky, J., Leslie, C., and Litchfield, K. (2012). "Collaborative Research: Gender Diversity, Identity, and EWB-USA." American Society of Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition. San Antonio, TX.