Title page for ETD etd-10102011-113404

Type of Document Dissertation
Author Crede, Erin Dawne
Author's Email Address ecrede@vt.edu
URN etd-10102011-113404
Title Organization and Retention in Research Groups in Graduate Engineering Departments
Degree PhD
Department Engineering Education
Advisory Committee
Advisor Name Title
Borrego, Maura Jenkins Committee Chair
Lohani, Vinod K. Committee Member
McNair, Lisa Committee Member
Ted Fuller Committee Member
  • mixed methods
  • graduate education
  • engineering research groups
  • retention
Date of Defense 2011-09-05
Availability unrestricted
The purpose of this research project was to better understand the experiences of graduate students in internationally diverse research groups, and how these research groups and international diversity contributes to a student’s intent to complete his or her graduate degree. This exploratory mixed methods research was conducted in three phases: (1) an ethnographic study of selected research groups in two engineering graduate departments, (2) development of a survey for students in graduate engineering students, and (3) administering the survey to graduate engineering students in research groups to verify the findings.

In order to address the project aims, three smaller studies were initiated that address individual elements of graduate education, including: learning in research groups and international diversity, and retention in graduate engineering programs. The focus of the first study was to understand how and under what conditions research groups foster successful learning and professional development for graduate engineering students, and how these findings can be used to inform management of engineering research groups to optimize student learning, productivity, and intent to complete the degree. Key findings from the ethnographic analysis indicate that group size directly influences the mechanisms of student learning, as well as several elements common across research groups from different universities and academic departments, including: power distance and communication, access to resources, and role of the advisor.

During the (second) integration phase of this mixed methods study, the nine months of ethnographically guided observations and interviews were used to develop a survey examining graduate engineering student retention. Findings from the ethnographic fieldwork yielded several themes, including: the role of international diversity, research group organization and climate, student self efficacy, and individual and group learning experiences. Final retention themes from the ethnographic analysis are presented along with a discussion of how these data were configured into instrument questions. A discussion of the final instrument is presented, including validity and reliability analysis, and how the final questions were integrated into themes to test hypotheses for future studies. This chapter also presents implications for mixed methods researchers interested in using qualitative methods to create new instruments.

In the third and final stage of the research study, the survey developed in the second phase of the research study was administered to four universities across the United States. Data analysis focused on better understanding the differences in retention constructs by student nationality. Results from more than 600 engineering PhD students from 6 international regions enrolled in U.S. engineering graduate programs were examined to characterize demographic differences in participant responses for intention to complete the degree. Six constructs were found to be significant in predicting students’ responses regarding their intention to complete their degree, including: expectations, climate, organization, project ownership, perception of value, and individual preferences. Taken together these constructs were able to explain 28 percent of the variation in student responses. Additionally, all six constructs showed significant differences with respect to a respondent’s country or region or origin. These results are discussed in light of the implications for faculty members advising similarly diverse groups of students.

In combination, these three studies represent a sequential exploratory mixed methods approach in which ethnographically guided observations and interviews were integrated into a quantitative instrument. Results of this study can be used to inform the organization and management of internationally diverse research groups to foster student development and ultimately increase retention.

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