Student engagement is a key element of student learning. Research shows that first-generation students in STEM majors often tend to struggle more and engage less than their continuing-generation counterparts. They also perceive the college environment to be less supportive. The present battles first-generation students are having call for more research on their engagement. Most of the existing research that deals with first-generation students’ engagement is not specific to engineering majors. Research that is specific to engineering majors is mostly qualitative research involving case studies and student interviews.
The present study fills the above-described research gaps. This paper outlines research conducted at a public research university and utilizing the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). The NSSE is an instrument widely used to measure student engagement in four categories, including participation in educationally purposeful activities, institutional requirements and the challenging nature of coursework, perceptions of the college environment, and estimates of personal and educational growth since starting college. The present study aimed to investigate these four categories of student engagement among first-generation students in engineering majors and relate them to overall experience and academic success. The overall research question is: Do four categories of student engagement correlate to one another for first-generation college students in engineering, and if so, how?
Sampling for this research was completed using a screening survey. Sophomore, junior, and senior engineering students at the authors’ institution were sent this survey via their school email and potential participants were identified. After the participants were identified, they received a copy of the informed consent documents to review and sign electronically if they chose to participate. After completing the informed consent document, students were then sent the NSSE survey via their school email to complete. The participants who completed the NSSE survey were compensated and comprised the research sample (n=28).
Data from the NSSE was analyzed using a quantitative statistical analysis and compared to NSSE data from other institutions. Findings indicate significant positive correlations between participant grade-point-average (GPA) and the following situations of student engagement: explaining course material to one or more students; coursework applying facts, theories, or methods to practical problems or new situations; experiences contributing to knowledge, skills, and personal development in thinking critically and analytically; and faculty and staff at the institution doing a good job helping students adapt to the changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
These results give new insights into student engagement specifically for first-generation students in engineering. They contribute to the current research in this area and help to provide a more inclusive picture of the educational experiences of the first-generation student community. Furthermore, these results provide a direction for future work in this area. Using these findings, future research will look to use these correlations to pilot programs for first-generation students in engineering to participate more in these areas of engagement.
Are you a researcher? Would you like to cite this paper?
Visit the ASEE document repository at
for more tools and easy citations.