CAREER: Supporting Undergraduate Mental Health by Building a Culture of Wellness in Engineering

Karin Jensen, Sara Rose Vohra, Joseph Francis Mirabelli, Andrea J. Kunze, Isabel Miller, Thomas Edward Romanchek

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


Despite increasing national awareness, there is minimal research of the “mental health crisis” in undergraduate engineering programs, where some evidence suggests even higher rates of mental health problems compared with other disciplines. Further, little research has endeavored to examine the perceived norms of poor mental health in engineering, nor to understand the factors that influence these perceptions over time. Though culture and perceived norms have critical recruitment and retention implications, no research has examined the role of a high-stress culture, particularly for underrepresented students who may already face a “chilly climate” or “climate of intimidation”. The project CAREER: Supporting Undergraduate Mental Health by Building a Culture of Wellness in Engineering addresses this knowledge gap using a mixed methods design to connect factors within the control of educators to outcomes seemingly out of control (mental health). Our recent research found that students associate high stress and even the development of mental health problems with being an engineering student. We argue that an enhanced understanding of the roots of this culture will enable proactive change, which will ultimately transform the field of engineering education. Using social identity theory as a lens to understand the student experience, this project leverages a mixed methods approach to determine: 1) how students’ perceptions of high-stress culture evolve over time, 2) how educators contribute to the normalization of high-stress culture, and 3) what resources can support students and educators towards fostering a culture of wellness. This summary describes the first phase of our research. Towards our goal of measuring the perceptions of engineering stress culture longitudinally, we have developed new survey items. Sample items include (“High stress is normal for engineering students” and “It is normal for engineering students to stay up all night working”) and responses will be measured on a Likert scale in accordance with agreement with the statement. In the first step of validating these new survey items, our team is conducting cognitive interviews with 10 engineering students to refine the items. Future work will leverage a pilot survey of an estimated 600 undergraduate engineering students. The data collected from the pilot study will be analyzed using exploratory factor analysis to identify latent factors and refine survey items. The newly developed survey items will be combined with measures of mental health, intention to remain in engineering, and perceptions of inclusion in a four-year longitudinal study. The results of the proposed study will provide insight into the social factors and “hidden curriculum” that influence student perceptions of engineering and ultimately the student experience. Moreover, the results of the proposed research will illuminate institutional or programmatic factors that develop perceptions of high stress in engineering and contribute to unspoken hazing. Overall, enhancing student well-being in undergraduate engineering programs will improve the public’s perception of engineering careers, attract and retain talented students, and will support broadening participation efforts.
Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalASEE Annual Conference and Exposition, Conference Proceedings
StatePublished - Jul 26 2021
Event2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference, ASEE 2021 - Virtual, Online
Duration: Jul 26 2021Jul 29 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Engineering


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