Connection, Community, and Engagement in STEM Education

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This study emphasizes understanding the role of as it impacts student engagement at the undergraduate level, emphasizing three communities: the classroom, a student's major department, and the home institution. The core research questions associated with the project are: How much does student connection vary across major, institution, and year in school? Which aspects of a particular type of institution are most influential in determining sense of community? How do students with a strong sense of community differ from those with a weaker sense of community? Does sense of community impact a student’s academic engagement?


University of Washington, College of Engineering in collaboration with Seattle Pacific University (Melani Plett, PI), Minnesota State University, Mankato (Rebecca Bates, PI), Tuskegee University (Tamara Floyd-Smith, PI), and Simmons College (Nanette Veilleux, PI).

Research Design: 

The project has a longitudinal and cross-sectional research design and will generate evidence that is primarily descriptive [observational]. Original data are collected using assessments of student work, classroom observations, focus groups, interviews, and surveys. Surveys focus on evaluating self-reports of affective and community related outcomes for undergraduates; focus groups focus on characteristics of community that most strongly influence these community-related constructs. Classroom observations capture general levels of engagement at the sophomore and junior levels for a range of majors. And, finally student work assessment emphasizes the identification of subtle difference in engagement (social vs. academic engagement in the classroom experience, for example). All constructs and methods seek to assess the conceptual framework developed in Phase 0 of this project and ultimately, to define key relationships between community and engagement.

The target population of interest is undergraduates at the University of Washington and four collaborating institutions, with 60% engineering majors and 40% other STEM majors. Focus groups and interviews are analyzed using thematic coding techniques. Classroom observations are analyzed using both quantitative (Likert Scale) and semi-quantitative analysis techniques. Surveys are analyzed using standard statistical analysis techniques including basic t-tests, Mann-Whitney tests, and multiple analysis of variance.


Phase 0 of the research plan has been completed. In Phase 0, the research tools (surveys, focus group and interview protocols) have been developed and graduate research assistants trained to use these tools. Pilot survey items have been collected from a wide variety of existing scales (with some modifications) to assess how well connected a person is to his community.

We developed a conceptual model that aggregates a wide range of constructs previously used by our group or other research groups. The model was developed from community-related constructs that are hypothesized to impact STEM Education through academic engagement which then leads to identification with the discipline, positive affect toward the discipline, and eventually persistence in the discipline. Our conceptual model also includes constructs that are most likely to confound the influence of these community related measures. The pathways by which each of these constructs (but especially a student’s connections to community) may directly influence or mediate academic engagement are captured in our research framework, with emphasis on a student’s connections to community.

Our phase 0 results reveal a strong Pearson correlation (0.50) between identity and connection to academic major as well as between affect and connection to academic major (0.56), somewhat smaller correlations to a specific classroom community (0.41 and 0.39), and still significant, but even smaller correlations to the larger institution (0.32 and 0.25). Thus, helping students connect to academic major communities and classrooms appears to increase the students professional identities and affect toward those professions.

Publications & Presentations: 

Tamara Floyd, Denise Wilson, Ryan Campbell, Diane Jones, Nanette Veilleux, Rebecca Bates, Melani Plett, Elaine Scott, and Don Peter, “A Multi-Institutional Study of Connection, Community, and Engagement in STEM Education: Conceptual Model Development,” ASEE (American Society for Engineering Education) Annual Conference 2010: Louisville, Kentucky.

Ken Yasuhara, Denise Wilson, Rebecca Bates, Tamara Floyd-Smith, Nanette Veilleux, Melani Plett, and Ryan Campbell, “Student Connections to Community in Computer Science and Engineering Education,” SIGCSE (Computer Science Education) Conference: Milwaukee, Wisconsin, March 2010.

Other Products: 

Our conceptual model and brief description of the constructs can be found at the website below.