Succeeding as Engineering Majors: Cultural Ecology Theory and Perceptions of Within-Race Gender and Ethnicity Differences in Engineering Skills and Work Ethnic

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Over the past decade, increasing the number of minorities engaged in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and careers has been a chief concern in the United States. However, minority students continue to be less likely to complete degrees in engineering and the physical sciences when compared to White students. Considering the growing minority population in the U.S., this trend is fast becoming a major issue for the engineering workforce as well as higher education institutions and programs committed to preparing students to be successful engineers. Now more than ever, in addition to enrolling a significant portion of Black college students, it has become critical that HBCUs take the lead on improving the retention of Black students in engineering and also in reversing the downward trend of male enrollment and graduation in engineering. In efforts to accomplish this, it is important to better understand the issues that help or hinder Black students’ success in the environments where they are preparing to become engineers. Within-race stereotyping is an unexpected phenomenon found to occur in predominately Black higher education settings that has been found to help (stereotype lift) or hinder (stereotype threat) African American students’ academic performance. The cultural ecological theory focuses on within-group differences among Black students and suggests that the way in which Black subgroups achieve their minority status impacts their academic achievement. Specifically, the cultural ecological theory draws distinctions between involuntary (e.g., African American) and voluntary (e.g., international Black) minorities. Essentially, as Black students strive for academic success, “they are required to reposition their Black cultural identity in a way that creates discontinuity of the self [...]”. Achievement differences are attributed to differences in one’s ability to effectively reposition or adjust to maximize “the educational fit between the student’s qualities and the multidimensional character and requirements of learning environments”. The historically Black university from which the sample for this study is drawn has been a leader in producing engineers from underrepresented minority groups, particularly African Americans. This university has awarded more than 9,000 Bachelor of Science degrees in STEM fields and first year student retention to the sophomore level is approximately 50% annually. While across the nation, international students account for approximately four percent of the college and university student body, this percentage is greater for STEM majors specifically. For example, at this university, international students represent nearly eleven percent of all STEM students. In 2009, the enrollment in engineering consisted of 386 undergraduates (248 males and one-third are international students). Lastly, at this university, the male to female ratio among engineering students approximately 2:1, but in in most US engineering schools men outnumber women 4:1. 

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