Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2012

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Angela R. Bielefeldt

Second Advisor

Derek T. Reamon

Third Advisor

Jacquelyn F. Sullivan

Fourth Advisor

R. Scott Summers

Fifth Advisor

Fernando L. Rosario-Ortiz


Interest in whether real-world problems or a service learning context increases students' academic performance and intent to find careers in engineering is gaining momentum. The belief that diverse student populations resonate with the idea that engineers can contribute to improving society is found throughout the literature, supporting the combination of service-learning with project-based courses as an instructional method that can impact identification with engineering in high school and first-year students, potentially increasing the recruitment and retention of capable and interested learners. While study of these reforms indicates many advantages, little meaningful evidence exists on the psychological and educational benefits from engaging in project-based service-learning.

This thesis examines the evolving identity and attitudes towards community service for both high school and first-year engineering students engaged in project-based design, and whether a service-learning context influences these changing attitudes. Quantitative Likert-style surveys were developed from previously validated instruments and administered to students pre-to post-semester. Each participant was surveyed multiple times during their design experience, and the survey results were aggregated to offer insight into their evolving attitudes towards identity with engineering and service to the community. Using hierarchical linear modeling (HLM) methods, students' responses to survey items were analyzed by comparing students in multiple service and non-service sections of a project-based design course at the high school and first-year engineering levels. Study results indicate that a service-learning context in project-based courses positively impacts identity and attitudes towards community service in targeted underrepresented populations of high school and undergraduate students. A ceiling effect was apparent for some students at both levels, who were predisposed to high community service attitudes and identification with engineering. Based on the results of this study, K-12 and undergraduate should consider project-based service-learning engineering design experiences early and often to improve students' identification with engineering, demonstrate professional and societal relevance of engineering, and potentially increase the interest and retention of a diverse population of students, including women and minorities, into the pipeline of engineering education and engineering workforce.