An Engineer Like Me: How Perceived Similarity and Peer Effects Influence Student Major Choice

Project No.
PI Name
Joyce Main
Purdue University

Abstract 1

An Engineer Like Me: How Perceived Similarity and Peer Effects Influence Student Major Choice

Presentation Type
Joyce Main, Purdue University Amanda Griffith, Wake Forest University


The importance and the role of engineering education in todayメs economic environment have been receiving growing attention. With the nationメs call for a larger and more diverse engineering labor force, it is timely and critical to better understand how multiple factors including classroom environments and peers, messaging from discipline representatives, and departmental-level demographic composition intersect to influence studentsメ academic trajectories. The proposed research is aimed at explaining why substantial variations in diversity exist across engineering disciplines as a function of student classroom experiencesラthe demographic composition of studentsメ peers and faculty, but also the messages that students receive regarding the values and career prospects of the different disciplines through classroom activities and interventions.


The project has the following objectives: (1) to investigate how studentsメ peers and role models, both from the student and faculty populations within each major, can affect studentsメ choice of major, (2) to investigate how the messaging and information students receive in the course of choosing their major can affect which field they will enter, and (3) to establish how and why major choices change over time.


We apply Albert Banduraメs social cognitive theory of self-regulation to contextualize our examination of the role of classroom peers, departmental demography, and classroom activities and intentions in student major choice. Our theoretical framework also incorporates the role of perceived similarityラモthe extent to which a personメs own perceived traits and attributes overlaps with the academic prototypes are related to improved attitudes toward the fieldヤ (Cheryan, 2010, p. 476). We will use both Ordinary Least Squares regression models and the instrumental variables approach to examine individual-level student data to identify how peers and faculty influence student major choice. We will also conduct focus groups to identify the salient themes regarding studentsメ perspectives and general attitudes toward major choice. We will then follow with individual interviews of 40 students. These interviews will be detailed and will cover other areas related to major choice, including parental influence, career aspirations, etc. We will use Glaser and Straussメs (1967) grounded theory approach to analyze our data.


This research advances the perspective that classroom peers and organizational demography�the broad classroom and discipline environment�can act as facilitators or barriers to diversification of the engineering undergraduate population and labor force. Therefore, the expected findings will identify particularly fruitful areas to be considered as potential intervention pathways to address historical inequities and stratification in professional engineering practice. Findings will generate new knowledge and insights that have important implications for the development of strategies to recruit more women and underrepresented minorities into the different engineering disciplines.

Broader Impacts

Having a full understanding of each peer or faculty characteristic that can affect students� decisions, and how the messaging provided by institutions impacts choices will allow policymakers to prioritize policies, such that the lowest-cost interventions can be used to encourage students to enter majors in which they are under-represented. As such, if messaging does turn out to be an important avenue by which institutions can affect major choice, this type of intervention will be very scalable and could have significant impacts on both the representation of female and minority students within certain fields like Computer Science, and also overall in producing the types of STEM graduates needed to advance scientific knowledge and technology in these fields. The successful completion of the proposed project can be expected to significantly complement ongoing efforts to increase recruitment efforts across engineering disciplines, as well as contribute to advances in the diversity literature.

Unexpected Challenges