Why Do African Americans Avoid Engineering Degree Programs?

kersaintResearchers at the University of South Florida in Tampa are participating in a new study to determine why members of underrepresented minority groups have low participation and retention rates in the field of engineering. The principal investigator of the study, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, is Gladis Kersaint, a professor in the university’s College of Education.

“If there are systemic issues, we want to know what they are and do something about them, and not have those things be barriers to success,” Dr. Kersaint explains.

Although Blacks and other minorities may be academically well-prepared for an engineering curriculum, various factors may contribute to the feeling of “not fitting in” or a “lack of belonging,” Dr. Kersaint says. “We also see heightened anxiety due to the fear of negative stereotyping, hyper-competitiveness and perceived discrimination which increase feelings of isolation.” These experiences may lead to the likelihood of switching from engineering to other majors.

The four-year study will survey first-year engineering undergraduates at 11 diverse universities across three states and one U.S. territory. Survey responses will provide data on the availability of resources as well as how accessible they are and whether they are, in fact, used. Further analysis will examine how these factors relate to the decision to pursue engineering undergraduate degrees, student retention and degree attainment.

Dr. Kersaint joined the faculty at the University of South Florida in 1998. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Miami and a doctorate in mathematics education from Illinois State University.

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