How do the smartness identities of female engineering students relate to their academic decision making?

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The Ohio State University

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(Background) Beliefs and identity related to smartness are a pervasive part of how students learn to see themselves as engineers. Smartness as a cultural practice creates the common assumption and public perception that people in engineering are smarter than others. Many hold the belief that engineering students need to possess or be born with certain types of smartness (e.g., analytical ability) to succeed. Furthermore, women are minoritized in engineering, in part because they are often perceived as lacking the competence needed to be engineers. (Design/Method) The data from the larger research study that this work extends was collected through three one-on-one interviews with each of the 37 undergraduate engineering students from different institutionalized educational tracks. The interviews were longitudinal across three academic semesters. Four female students were purposefully selected for further analysis based on their diverse patterns of academic decision making. Data condensation and display techniques were used to explore the relationship between the participants' smartness identities and academic decisions qualitatively. (Results) Despite their varied academic decision-making patterns, the results of the analysis indicate that each of the female students' smartness identities changed during their first-year engineering experiences. All participants drew on different smartness identities at different periods. This change in smartness identity was a positive aspect of the participants' beliefs and identities. Their identities as smart motivated them to make academic decisions that made them feel smarter. Additionally, the change of smartness identities that occurred functioned for each student as a source of motivation to improve and succeed. There is evidence that smartness identity is related to academic decision-making for 3 out of 4 participants in this study; however, external factors such as family influence also play significant roles in female engineering students' decision making for one out of four participants. (Conclusion) The change of smartness identity and related affective constructs such as confidence and motivation can promote the persistence of female students in engineering. However, female students may still leave the engineering field because they feel that the engineering curriculum at their institution cannot support their smartness identity development or prevents them from feeling smarter. Engineering educators need to identify what component of smartness identity is missing in their current curriculum and provide corresponding smartness identity education to improve engineering retention.