Why Do Students Choose Engineering? A Qualitative, Longitudinal Investigation of Students' Motivational Values


  • Holly M. Matusovich,

    Corresponding author
    1. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
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    • Holly M. Matusovich is an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Cornell University, and a M.S. in Materials Science from the University of Connecticut and a Ph.D. in Engineering Education from Purdue University. Dr. Matusovich has more than 12 years of experience in engineering practice including work as an engineering consultant and later in a variety of roles in a manufacturing environment.

  • Ruth A. Streveler,

    Corresponding author
    1. Purdue University
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    • Ruth A. Streveler is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering Education at Purdue University. She holds a B.A. in Biology from Indiana University, a M.S. in Zoology from The Ohio State University and a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Prior to coming to Purdue, she was the founding director of the Center for Engineering Education at the Colorado School of Mines. She has been a co-PI on several projects funded by the National Science Foundation and served a stint as acting director of the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education. She earned the 2006 and 2007 Helen Plants Awards for best non-traditional session at the Frontiers in Education Conference.

  • Ronald L. Miller

    Corresponding author
    1. Colorado School of Mines
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    • Ronald L. Miller is a professor of Chemical Engineering and director of the Center for Engineering Education at Colorado School of Mines. He earned degrees in chemical engineering from the University of Wyoming and Colorado School of Mines. Dr. Miller has received three university-wide teaching awards and has held a Jenni teaching fellowship at CSM. He has received grant awards for education research from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education FIPSE program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and has published widely in the areas of engineering education assessment, pedagogy, and curricular design.

Department of Engineering Education (0218), 626 McBryde Hall, Blacksburg, VA 24162; telephone: (+1) 540.231.4205; fax: (+1) 540.231.6903; e-mail: matushm@vt.edu.

School of Engineering Education, Purdue University, Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering, West Lafayette, IN, 47907; telephone: (+1) 765.496.9031; fax: (+1) 765.494.5819; e-mail: streveler@purdue.edu.

Chemical Engineering Department, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO, 80401; telephone: (+1) 303.273.3892; fax: (+1) 303.273.3730; e-mail: rlmiller@mines.edu.



Recently published reports call for an increase in the number of engineering graduates and suggest appropriate characteristics that these graduates should embody. Accomplishing such change first requires understanding why students choose to pursue engineering degrees.

Purpose (Hypothesis)

Framed in motivation theory, our purpose was to better understand how students choose engineering by answering the question: How do engineering students' engineering-related value beliefs contribute to their choices to engage and persist in earning engineering degrees?


This research uses Eccles' expectancy-value theory in a qualitative, longitudinal examination of undergraduate students' choices to enroll and persist in engineering majors. In particular, the focus of this work is Eccles' subjective task value (STV) construct, which incorporates the personal importance an individual assigns to engaging in an activity. Using a multiple case study method approach, participants included eleven students (five men and six women) at a U.S. technical school.


Results demonstrate that different patterns exist in the types of value or personal importance that participants assign to earning an engineering degree. Moreover, a primary differentiating feature of these patterns is whether or not participants choose engineering because it is consistent with their personal identity or sense of self.


We conclude that values are very important in students' choices to become engineers. To increase persistence rates we must focus on values, especially by helping students connect their personal identities to engineering identities.