Julie Martin is on a quest to figure out what resources students need to pick the right engineering major and stick with it until a degree is in hand. Her focus is on how students’ social connections to parents, teachers, university officials and others can help them succeed.

Julie Martin works with students during a class in Dillard Building.

The results of her research might be surprising. She has found that Mom and Dad may not be as important as once thought, particularly once students pick their majors.

In some of her latest research, Martin and her collaborators asked whether first-generation college students have less access to information, resources and opportunities than students from college-educated families.

The researchers found that students from college-educated families had a broader and more tightly knit network of people to provide workplace tours and other opportunities. But first-generation college students were adept at using weaker connections to educators and other sources.

“The most important takeaway is that the data demonstrate that first-generation college students do in fact access resources,” Martin said.

The results underscored how important it is to adequately fund and staff university engineering programs that help recruit, retain and reach out to students, researchers found.

The programs have a greater benefit for first-generation college students, but help all students build networks.

“Including parents is still important so they can provide whatever support and resources possible,” Martin said. “All of it helps.”

It is also important to reach students in community college or even earlier, researchers found. Middle- and high-school teachers can be particularly influential to first-generation college students.

“Even a small gesture can have a big impact on a student’s future,” Martin said.

Researchers surveyed 1,410 engineering undergraduate students at five U.S. universities. They reported their findings in the International Journal of Engineering Education.

Martin served as the lead author. Matthew K. Miller, also of Clemson, and Denis R. Simmons of Virginia Tech collaborated. Miller is a general engineering instructor at Clemson. Simmons is in a tenure-track position at Virginia Tech.

Tanju Karanfil, associate dean for research and graduate students in Clemson’s College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said that Martin’s work is shedding light on an important topic.

“The next generation of engineers will need an education before entering the workforce,” he said. “Dr. Martin’s work is helping us better understand what it takes to recruit and retain them. The state and nation will need them to remain competitive.”

Martin is an assistant professor in the department of engineering and science education with a joint appointment in the materials science and engineering. She is an National Science Foundation CAREER award-winner for her research “Influence of Social Capital on Under-Represented Engineering Students’ Academic and Career Decisions.”


Paul Alongi: palongi@clemson.edu

Julie Martin: jtrenor@clemson.edu