Keeping the 'SPARK' alive - Investigating Effective Practices in the Retention of Female Undergraduates in Engineering and Computer Science
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SPARK is the first project at Texas State University designed to recruit and retain low income, female, first year students who show an early interest in majoring in engineering and computer science (ECS). Female students who show an initial extrinsic interest in these majors can be driven away far too easily by their experiences. SPARK has two primary goals: (1) create an environment where belonging to a like-minded cohort nurtures a strong sense of self, and (2) deliver high quality, high impact practices that engender female students’ success and retention in ECS.
Guided by Albert Bandura and Frank Pajares’ research on self-efficacy in theory and practice, the SPARK project sheds light on self-efficacy and confidence as predictive of persistence for female students in ECS. Additionally, the effect of SPARK students’ spatial visualization skills was assessed and tracked throughout the life of the project, utilizing Sheryl Sorby’s research correlating spatial visualization skills to STEM success. Current research-based approaches to student engagement provide good evidence that mattering and sense of belonging are also highly correlative with persistence, particularly for first year students. This is important because the national conversation on what works to mend the gender gap in STEM is currently wedged between Sheryl Sandberg’s “leaning in” and Angela Duckworth’s views on “grit” as an indicator of persistence.
In this paper, we will discuss the context and history of the SPARK program, present assessment outcomes about impact to date, share lessons learned, and consider future directions. This work will contribute to the growing body of research on retaining females in ECS by developing and analyzing student motivation; recognizing factors that may contribute to aspirational deficient, attrition, and marginalization; and designing and assessing activities that strengthen self-confidence, self-efficacy, and persistence in retention programs for females in ECS.