Developing a Learning Community of Engineers Through an Honors First-Year Seminar

Developing a Learning Community of Engineers Through an Honors First-Year Seminar

Melissa L. Johnson (University of Florida, USA) and Kristy Spear (University of Florida, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2212-6.ch005
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First-year engineering majors face a myriad of obstacles as they begin college. Taking challenging foundational coursework, navigating new expectations for performance and experience, and understanding the broader impact of their academic interests are just a few of those obstacles. In addition, female students sometimes face additional barriers to success, particularly as some question their own competence in the field. This chapter focuses on a first-year seminar for honors students that highlights the high impact practices (Kuh, 2008) students should participate in throughout their undergraduate career. These practices include global engagement, undergraduate research, and internships that are essential for early exposure to future career interests. By developing both formal and informal learning communities within the seminar (Johnson, Pasquini, & Rodems, 2013), first-year students are exposed to opportunities, mentoring, and support that help them make informed decisions about their major and career.
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Major and Career Decision Making

The process of choosing a major and career can be difficult for many students. Even after choices are made, decisions have a tendency to waver. This challenging process is often influenced by a number of factors. External factors including familial pressure and the current the job market can impact choices as much as internal factors which may include interest, ability, knowledge of the career options, and self-efficacy. Several studies have tied the career decision-making process back to presumed financial reward, recognition, sense of social purpose, flexibility, and intellectual stimulation (Xu, 2013). Major and career decisions can also be influenced by a student’s ability to feel that he or she is achieving a set of desired goals. These goals generally relate to academics or knowledge of the skills needed to be successful in a certain career. With all of these variables in play, major exploration and the uncertainty surrounding the real-world implications for career choices confound many undergraduate students.

Limited knowledge of career options leave many students feeling ambiguous about major choices. Even students who declare majors that seemingly correlate with careers often lack critical knowledge of the range and extensiveness of the career choices available. This particular issue presents often with engineering students, as they narrowly interpret the profession and the options that exist after graduation (Singer et al., 2015). Providing engineering students with resources, support, and information about potential careers in a community setting during the critical first-year is one way that colleges and universities can help address this uncertainty regarding major and career.

The transitional first year of college is difficult for many students, and the pressure to make an immediate and absolute decision about majors and careers can cause additional stress. For many students, the major decision-making process extends well beyond the first year. This exploratory process can be ongoing. For engineering students, additional support during the first year can build confidence in the choice of major and provide evidence of career options that may be a good fit. With a lack of qualified workforce and a major push by the United States government to increase the number of students graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), particularly women and racial and ethnic minorities (Olitsky, 2014), faculty and staff must work to reach out to these particular students as early as possible. Providing support and mentoring for first-year engineering students through community building and high impact practices can build confidence in major choice, supply resources that a student may access if he or she is struggling, and help to retain more students in the field and the profession.

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