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Engineering and Science Education

Benson Group

Student Motivation in STEM Education

Lisa Benson was the first faculty member hired when the department was founded in 2006 and has since developed several programs to help students, graduate teaching assistants and fellow researchers. As a professor in engineering education, Benson is regarded as one of the world's leading authorities in engineering education and whose influence has extended as far away as Indonesia. Her particular research focuses on the interactions between student motivation and their learning experiences.

Lisa Benson with graduate students

Research Projects

Student Perspectives on Researcher Identity and Transformative Epistemologies (SPRITE)

Funding Agency: National Science Foundation

Summary: Undergraduate Research Experiences (URE) give engineering students the opportunity to contribute to their discipline through original research under the guidance of faculty and/or graduate student mentors. These experiences have shown positive effects on student understanding regarding the nature of science, motivation, retention, and academic performance. While UREs are very important, not all students are able to participate in these experiences due to constraints on their time and resources. Our goal is to understand the effects of UREs better and develop a theoretical model that captures epistemic cognition and identity development. This model will identify key elements from UREs that influence students' identity and epistemic cognition. We will work with engineering faculty to develop methods to incorporate these elements into a variety of learning environments so more students can benefit.

Collaborators: Marian (Molly) Kennedy (Clemson University), Katherine Ehlert (Clemson University), Dennis Lee (Clemson University), Courtney Faber (The College of New Jersey), Rachel Kajfez (The Ohio State University) and Penelope Vargas.

CAREER: Student Motivation and Learning in Engineering

Funding Agency: National Science Foundation

Summary: My CAREER project focuses on the interactions between student motivation and their learning experiences, specifically those pertaining to their development of problem-solving skills. Engineering students must become effective problem solvers, but they often have limited views of what problem-solving entails in engineering. We conducted a mixed-methods study involving ongoing survey development, data collection, and interviews with engineering students. We developed the Motivation and Attitudes in Engineering (MAE) survey based on the Future Time Perspective (FTP) theory, which examines how students perceive their possible future selves, their perceptions of what they are doing in the present (specifically, solving problems in engineering courses), and any perceived interactions between the future and the present (instrumentality). Based on results from our interviews with engineering students, the survey also includes items related to goal orientation (mastery versus performance) and problem-solving self-efficacy. Survey data is being used for a longitudinal study of how student motivation and perceptions of problem-solving change over time and for the selection of interview participants. Interviews with second-year bioengineering and mechanical engineering students focus on students' FTPs and their approaches to solving engineering problems.

Results from our research provide powerful evidence of how engineering students' perceptions of problem-solving are driven by their motivations across time scales, specifically, the way they view long-term goals and how goals affect their opinions about present tasks. All students in our study expressed the desire to solve problems that benefit society or help others, but not all students see connections between their futures and the work they are doing in their courses. Students with well-developed ideas about their futures seek relevance and structure in problems they solve. Guiding and encouraging these students when solving open-ended engineering problems may improve their attitudes towards these issues. Students with vague or broad future perceptions seek to create and explore. Problems that engage students in engineering practice may help them achieve their goal of exploring various contexts.

Supplemental funding for this project supports a Research Experience for Teachers (RET) intern and expansion of the project to include engineering students in southeast Asia.

Collaborators: Catherine McGough (Clemson University), Courtney Faber (Clemson University/The College of New Jersey), Justine Chasmar (Clemson University), Jeannine Turner (Florida State University), Jenefer Husman (Arizona State University), Adam Kirn (University of Nevada – Reno)

Effects of Student Factors Related to Success Mathematics Courses on Persistence in Engineering

Funding Agency: Unfunded

Summary: This study seeks to understand how students who start in precalculus and struggle in their mathematics courses persist and complete an engineering degree program. The project began with an analysis of how student characteristics, such as background knowledge and skills in algebra and trigonometry, and their study habits in precalculus, affect students' success in precalculus and their subsequent math courses, and the likelihood of choosing engineering as a major. Few significant factors emerged, except that gender and taking AP calculus were significant predictors of choosing engineering as a major. A second quantitative study was conducted to determine the effects of the first mathematics course in terms of level (precalculus versus calculus) and grade earned on students' likelihood of persisting in engineering. Our results showed that both the level and grade in students' first college mathematics course are significant predictors of retention in engineering.

The project continues with two qualitative studies to examine the decision to major in engineering for students with poor mathematical performance/preparation, how these students cope with the difficulties they may have in mathematics courses, and factors that contribute to their persistence in engineering when they encounter difficulties in their college mathematics courses. Interview data were analyzed to build an evidence-based theory about engineering students' mathematics self-efficacy and its relationship to their performance in college mathematics courses. Preliminary findings suggest that the mathematics performance of students with high self-reported mathematics self-efficacy can differ depending on their actual mathematics knowledge, skills and abilities. Students who appear to have a small gap between self-efficacy and abilities work hard to overcome deficiencies; students who are overconfident (higher self-efficacy relative to actual abilities) procrastinate and put forth less effort when faced with difficulties. Students perceived their overall mathematics self-efficacy as being higher than their problem-solving self-efficacy in mathematics.

Collaborators: Jennifer Van Dyken (Clemson University) and Gustavo Moran (Clemson University)

Robert Noyce TigersTeach Scholarship Initiative

Funding Agency: National Science Foundation

Summary: The TigersTeach Noyce Scholarship Initiative is a partnership among Clemson University's Eugene T. Moore College of Education, College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, and College of Agriculture, Forestry, and Life Sciences in collaboration with partner school districts in South Carolina. TigersTeach recruits students presently majoring in engineering, the sciences, and mathematics (STEM) and/or recent graduates with these degrees to become secondary science and mathematics teachers. In addition, TigersTeach provides co-curricular support mechanisms to create a vibrant learning community of scholars, teachers, and professors in STEM disciplines, including conference attendance and presentations, teacher panels, and field trips. Paid internships provide relevant experience for students who are considering teaching as a career. Interns are placed in local high schools to work with students individually, co-plan and co-teach lessons with their cooperating teachers, and participate in faculty-led seminars.

Collaborators: Michelle Cook (PI), Megan Che, Molly Kennedy (Clemson University)

Collaborative Research: Engineering Education Research (EER) Leader NetWorkshops: Mentoring, Communicating, and Power Brokering for the Next Generation

Funding Agency: National Science Foundation

Summary: We are building a mechanism to mentor and support mid-career faculty across distributed locations with limited administrative or leadership experience. Our goal is to develop advocates and future leaders for this emerging discipline by focusing on three themes:

  • Community: building a community of future EER leaders and preparing to include new community members rising in academic leadership ranks
  • Communication: building skills to "manage up" and deal with power differentials
  • Action: identifying strategies for moving the emerging field forward and supporting rising EER leaders

Through face-to-face workshops, monthly virtual "book club" discussions and conference presentations, our community of rising leaders in EER can articulate goals, share resources, identify barriers and develop ways to overcome barriers to allow us to fulfill a stewardship role within engineering education systems.

Collaborator: Rebecca Bates (Minnesota State University-Mankato)

Collaborative Research: Intersectionality of Non-normative Identities in the Cultures of Engineering (InIce)

Funding Agency: National Science Foundation

Summary: This study investigates the intersectionality of students' identities to understand how non-normative groups form an engineering identity and navigate a culture dominated by heteronormativity and limited diversity. Cutting-edge analytic methods based on the mathematical field of topology, which has not been previously used in this area and a longitudinal study of students as they progress from the first-year student to senior year, are being applied to understand how students develop their identities as engineers and their feelings of belongingness in their chosen major. Using these advanced mathematical analyses to study students' attitudes and beliefs, without the prior imposition of our own biases about 'normative' identities in engineering, we seek to understand how students cluster together in terms of their attitudes, career intentions, and others motivations. Our results will inform ways to increase diversity in engineering programs through recruitment and teaching strategies that consider how students identify themselves within engineering. This, in turn, will help initiate a much-needed shift toward a more diverse population of engineers to benefit from the rich range of perspectives, talents and skills they offer.

Collaborators: Geoff Potvin (Florida International University), Allison Godwin (Purdue University), Adam Kirn (University of Nevada – Reno)

Collaborative Research: Assessing the Spectrum of International Undergraduate Engineering Educational Experiences

Funding Agency: National Science Foundation

Summary: International experiences are increasingly viewed as important components of undergraduate engineering education. For accreditation, every engineering program must demonstrate that its graduates possess "the broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, environmental, and societal context." While it is left to each program to define what this outcome means and how it would be measured, it is implied that engineering programs begin to address "global preparedness." Yet little has been done to define global preparedness, specify alternatives for achieving it, or determine to what degree being globally prepared results from personal attributes, prior experiences, or curricular and co-curricular experiences. We investigate how international experiences both in and outside of formal curricula impact engineering students' global preparedness by assessing the nature and effectiveness of the diverse international opportunities available to U.S. engineering undergraduates. We are identifying ways to measure changes in global awareness, knowledge and thinking to address our research questions. Our results and tools will provide insight to engineering administrators and faculty to consider how to prepare their students for a better global economy.

Collaborators: Randy Collins and Erin McCave (Clemson University); Mary Besterfield-Sacre and Larry Shuman (University of Pittsburgh), Cheryl Matherly (University of Tulsa); Gisele Ragusa (University of Southern California)

Dr. Lisa Benson

Department of Engineering & Science Education

Office: 255 Sirrine Hall
Phone: (864) 656-7148

Editor, Journal of Engineering Education