Research Methodologies & Findings Examining Educational and Professional Trajectories of Engineering Technology Students


Last month we brought you a story about the PathTECH grant and its role in examining career pathways of students in engineering technology. This month we will take a step further in the same direction and take a closer look at some of the research methodologies and findings of the PathTECH team. As a recap, Successful Academic and Employment Pathways in Advanced Technologies, or PathTech, is part of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program committed to support/fund community college programs that boost technician education across the nation. The grant targets high school and community college programs, and is devoted to researching pathways into technician education programs, gauge effectiveness of these programs, analyze outcomes of these targeted programs, and answer some of the questions that germinate from the ATE projects.


In keeping with the project goals, the PathTech initiative entails a qualitative and
quantitative research component. The qualitative research represents an inductive approach whereby researchers are trying to build an understanding of a particular social experience. Lakshmi Jayaram, lead qualitative investigator for the PathTech grant and Sociology research assistant professor at USF, describes the qualitative component “as an attempt to gain an in-depth understanding of what the pathways (into engineering technology) are, and social experiences connected to each of those pathways.” The PathTech team is currently conducting a series of interviews with high school and community college students, faculty and administrators at HCC, SPC, PSC and SCF as well as industry personnel and employers from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota-Manatee counties who are involved in engineering technology related career academies/CTE programs. Through the interviews, “we hope to construct a rich and in-depth understanding of what these pathways from education to occupation in the engineering technology field look like” Jayaram said.

The quantitative part of the project is an attempt to understand and develop a profile of students who enroll into A.S. degree programs in Florida. Quantitative research is heavily based on data from the Florida Department of Education data warehouse, and is targeted to gauge how students meet that profile in terms of the courses they take, location of the schools they attend, and compare how students who enter into the A.S. E.T degree programs fare in comparison to students who choose other pathways. The team also looked at factors that determine whether a student completes an A.S. degree, and whether a degree in these fields promote career in high-tech fields.  “The future of our economy, workforce, students and their educational trajectories are all intertwined. The issues we are researching are relevant in terms of uncovering everyday struggles experienced by our target audience” Jayaram said.

Pilot data has uncovered an interesting mix of educational and career plans among
interviewees. In terms of high school students, it shows they are either interested in pursuing a four year college degree, or contemplating on attending community colleges that offer co-op programs with local industries, or are interested in directly entering the workforce. Preliminary data from interviewing community college students suggests most are older students in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, are already working in ET related fields, and are either taking courses to add to their skills set, expand their responsibilities at work, or gain higher wages.

Then too, despite differences in their pathways, all students regardless of their age “articulated their enjoyment in working with their hands, repairing things, taking things apart and putting them together” as factors propelling their career interest in engineering technology. Empirical data also supported the theory that the higher the socio economic status, the greater the likelihood for an individual to go to college. “It is a really promising avenue of research,” Jayaram said. “We’re looking at a very big picture and examining the transformative nature of these degree programs.”

As part of PathTech’s dissemination strategy to inform its stakeholders, PathTech leadership team will publish results and reports of the study in professional and peer reviewed journals. The team will also publish briefs on its website. “This research is a much needed compliment to the other aspects of studying engineering technology. Whatever we find through our research is a contribution towards knowledge in this field” Jayaram said.
For more information on PathTech visit http://sociology.usf.edu/pathtech, or contact Will Tyson, P.I. & associate professor of sociology at USF at wtyson@usf.edu, and Lakshmi Jayaram at ljayaram@usf.edu. For information on FLATE’s K-14 STEM based curriculum and professional development programs, visit www.madeinflorida.org and www.fl-ate.org, or contact Dr. Marilyn Barger, executive director of FLATE at barger@fl-ate.org