Despite increased calls for the need for more diverse engineers and significant efforts to “move the needle,” the composition of students, especially women, earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering has not significantly changed over the past three decades. Prior research by Klotz and colleagues (2014) showed that sustainability as a topic in engineering education is a potentially positive way to increase women’s interest in STEM at the transition from high school to college. Additionally, sustainability has increasingly become a more prevalent topic in engineering as the need for global solutions that address the environmental, social, and economic aspects of sustainability have become more pressing. However, few studies have examined students’ sustainability related career for upper-level engineering students. This time point is a critical one as students are transitioning from college to industry or other careers where they may be positioned to solve some of these pressing problems. In this work, we answer the question, “What differences exist between men and women’s attitudes about sustainability in upper-level engineering courses?” in order to better understand how sustainability topics may promote women’s interest in and desire to address these needs in their future careers.
We used pilot data from the CLIMATE survey given to 228 junior and senior civil, environmental, and mechanical engineering students at a large East Coast research institution. This survey included questions about students’ career goals, college experiences, beliefs about engineering, and demographic information. The students surveyed included 62 third-year students, 96 fourth-year students, 29 fifth-year students, and one sixth-year student. In order to compare our results of upper-level students’ attitudes about sustainability, we asked the same questions as the previous study focused on first-year engineering students, “Which of these topics, if any, do you hope to directly address in your career?” The list of topics included energy (supply or demand), climate change, environmental degradation, water supply, terrorism and war, opportunities for future generations, food availability, disease, poverty and distribution of resources, and opportunities for women and/or minorities. As the answer to this question was binary, either “Yes,” or “No,” Pearson’s Chi-squared test with Yates’ continuity correction was performed on each topic for this question, comparing men and women’s answers.
We found that women are significantly more likely to want to address water supply, food availability, and opportunities for woman and/or minorities in their careers than their male peers. Conversely, men were significantly more likely to want to address energy and terrorism and war in their careers than their female peers. Our results begin to help us understand the particular differences that men and women, even far along in their undergraduate engineering careers, may have in their desire to address certain sustainability outcomes in their careers. This work begins to let us understand certain topics and pathways that may support women in engineering as well as provides comparisons to prior work on early career undergraduate students. Our future work will include looking at particular student experiences in and out of the classroom to understand how these sustainability outcome expectations develop.