Research Summary

Predicting engineering students’ desire to address climate change in their careers: an exploratory study using responses from a U.S. National survey

Factors that contribute to engineering students choosing a career in climate change

Environmental Education Research
2021

Engineering is a key discipline for creating climate change solutions through developing materials and structures to combat negative impacts like rising temperatures, flooding, and sea level rise. Though much research has been conducted with middle and high school students to understand opinions of and the willingness to address climate change in future careers, there has been little review of how engineering students in undergraduate programs at universities in the United States regard climate change. The Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET), which accredits post-secondary university engineering programs, emphasizes teaching undergraduate engineering majors about climate change and sustainability. The researchers in this study surveyed undergraduate engineering students from different majors to identify the factors that most contributed to the students’ opinions of climate change and determine the relationship among those factors that influenced the students’ decisions to seek a climate change-focused career after graduation.

The researchers conducted the study during the spring semester in 2018. The sample included senior engineering students at ABET-accredited undergraduate institutions of all sizes across the United States. Professors at these institutions voluntarily distributed the paper surveys during classes to their students. In total, 4,605 surveys were collected. The survey included 40 questions total, with specific questions to measure the student’s belief in climate change, belief of a sustainable future, and career aspirations. The survey also included questions on demographic information, major concentrations, and college experiences, including courses and co-curricular activities. The answer styles to the survey questions varied. Some questions had the option to rank answers from strongly disagree to strongly agree with a list of statements, some questions instructed respondents to mark all statements that applied to them, and some questions included single-choice answers from statements. For instance, one question was “Which of these topics, if any, do you hope to directly address in your career?” Respondents could mark all that applied to them from a list which included climate change, water supply, opportunities for women and/or minorities, disease, energy, and more. The survey data was then analyzed by the researchers.

The survey results showed four factors which predicted a student’s desire to pursue a climate change-focused career. The two most significant factors were personal recognition of, and personal responsibility for, climate change. These students felt climate change impacted them personally and they had a responsibility to protect the environment. Further, these students demonstrated a belief in collective action because they felt society should take responsibility to create sustainable solutions, not just themselves as future engineers. The students also viewed climate change as a technical issue as opposed to a social issue, likely because of their exposure to solving technical problems throughout their engineering program. The third factor was the understanding that climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels and producing livestock. The fourth factor was a student’s concentration within their engineering degree. For instance, environmental, architectural, and general engineering majors were more likely to express a willingness to tackle climate change in their career compared to other concentrations like mechanical engineering majors.

The data also revealed the least impactful factors in engineering students. Regarding collegiate experiences, courses on climate change and environmental co-curricular activities (volunteering, student organizations) did not have a significant impact on the students. Demographic circumstances like political affiliation, religious belief, gender, and the beliefs of family and friends regarding climate change also did not have a significant impact on their opinions of climate change. These least impactful factors were surprising results to the researchers and differed some from other studies where these factors can influence climate change beliefs. However, the difference between just believing in climate change and wanting to dedicate a career in it differ, which may explain the results.

There were limitations in this study. The researchers acknowledged the college seniors who intended to address climate change in their careers may not have gone on to do so. Some student survey responses were removed from the analysis because of the low sample size in those specific majors of study (43 students from mining, nuclear, agriculture, biological/biosystems, or engineering physics). Further, there was no discussion about the influence of dual engineering major subjects or other minor subjects. Finally, it did not appear the survey results included international students studying engineering in universities across the United States. This limitation therefore does not represent the full potential of the role of higher education in the United States that can influence climate-change oriented engineers in the American workforce.

Based on the survey data, the researchers suggested developing a student’s personal responsibility for climate change is the most effective way to instill a desire in an engineering student to pursue a climate change-focused career. Educators should provide opportunities for experiential learning and to create personal connections within the local community. Climate change concepts can be made more accessible by offering content through models, data visualization, and creative analysis. Climate change can be taught in ways that not only highlight it as a social issue but also as a technical issue, which may inspire more engineering-minded students to tackle a climate-change career.

The Bottom Line

Engineering is key for creating solutions to climate change through developing materials and structures to combat negative impacts. Undergraduate engineering students were surveyed to identify the most predictive factors that influenced their aspirations to address climate change issues in their career after graduation. From the 4,605 surveys, the results showed four factors predicted a student’s desire to pursue climate change careers, with the two most significant factors being personal recognition of and personal responsibly for climate change. The data also revealed college experiences and demographic circumstances did not have a significant impact on student career aspirations. The researchers suggested developing a student’s personal responsibility for climate change is the most effective way to instill a desire in an engineering student to pursue a climate change-focused career. Educators should provide opportunities for experiential learning and help students create personal connections within the local community.