As educators strive to broaden representation in engineering, it is important to take into account how youth perceive themselves in relation to engineering careers. Youth as young as ten years of age are assessing the appeal and achievability of engineering as a career. This study explores preadolescents’ perceptions of the desirability of engineering careers and the self-assessed characteristics which impact students’ interest in engineering. In particular, this work unpacks what attracts elementary students to engineering careers and what these students believe it takes to be an engineer. Drawing from a set of 56 student interviews, this work addresses the research question In what ways are elementary school students thinking about careers in engineering? Existing research indicates that students’ interest in engineering careers declines as students enter middle school; this study contributes to understanding influences on students’ interests when they are on the cusp of deciding whether to pursue engineering study and careers.
As part of a study of a university-led engineering education outreach program in elementary classrooms, 5th grade students participated in 15- to 30-minute semi-structured interviews near the end of the academic year. Participants represented four classrooms in two suburban schools in the northeastern United States that had each engaged in 16-18 weeks of hands-on engineering activities led by undergraduate engineering students. Interviews focused on the students’ experiences with engineering and the engineering intervention, students’ role models, and students’ career aspirations. We utilized open coding to analyze the interviews and identified the keywords and themes that students used to describe why an engineering career would be appealing or unappealing and possible or impossible for them. Two themes characterized the interview data; these students’ receptivity to pursuing engineering careers appeared to be mediated by conceptions of engineering careers as involving skill (in idea generation or in creation of technology) or desire (the will to do engineering).
This paper utilizes interview data to attend to students’ perspectives and expand our understanding of barriers and gateways to student interest in engineering study and careers. It also discusses the implications of the findings for teaching engineering with an eye on the messages conveyed about the nature of engineering practices, the characteristics of engineers, and how students’ interests intersect with engineering careers.