Researching girls’ attitudes to engineering


Otago Polytechnic’s research project aims to find out whether the school environment influences girls’ awareness of and attitudes to engineering.

Secondary-Tertiary Pathways Project research project

The engineering department is running a research project funded through Engineering e2e’s Secondary-Tertiary Pathways Project (STPP). It aims to find out about girls’ perceptions of engineering, whether the type of school they attend influences their awareness and attitudes, and potential barriers to engineering study.

Following last year’s event for Year 9 girls, the STPP team decided to focus on engaging girls with engineering. This led to the research project designed to help the team more effectively reach female students.
Case study: Engaging girls with engineering activities

It makes sense to focus on getting more girls

“Given the low numbers of girls enrolling to study engineering at Otago, and elsewhere,” says STPP Project Manager John Findlay, “it makes sense to focus on getting more girls to consider a career in engineering.”

Research Project Manager Hana Cadzow notes that although there are few women in the New Zealand Diploma in Engineering (NZDE) and Bachelor of Engineering Technology (BEngTech) courses, those who do enrol are committed. “So, it’s really around inspiring girls at secondary school level – our retention of female students is very good and when they finish they get jobs almost straightaway.”

Does school environment influence girls’ attitudes to engineering?

Senior Engineering Lecturer Joelle Peters says the research is aimed at finding out whether school environment – single-sex or co-educational, urban or rural – makes a difference in girls’ attitudes or knowledge of engineering.

The research team will survey all Year 9 – 13 girls in seven schools to find out their experiences of engineering and engineering careers. The one-page survey includes questions about what subjects the girls are taking and ethnicity. “We’re particularly interested in finding out what Māori and Pasifika students – our other priority learners – think” says Hana.

Other questions will ask what the students look for in a career and where they get their information from. “This could reveal that possibly they’re not choosing engineering because of the mismatch between what they want to do and what they think engineers do.”

Follow-up focus groups

The research team will follow up the survey with focus groups of Year 10 and Year 13 students in each school (14 focus groups in total) in which they will ask:

  1. What appeals to you as a career?
  2. What sort of skills does an engineer need?
  3. How do you choose a career path and NCEA subjects?
  4. What are the attributes of an engineer (based on 12 attributes chosen by industry)?

Question 4, says Joelle, can lead into conversations such as, ‘If you have 10 of those attributes but lack maths and science you’re on your way, you just need to catch up with that study.”

“We also want to highlight the humanitarian aspects of engineering which often appeal to girls in particular.”

The research team is currently finalising parental consent forms with schools prior to getting Otago Polytechnic’s ethics committee approval and plans to begin surveying students Term 3.

Possible research findings

The research team expects to find that the girls – in common with students of both sexes around the country – have little awareness of the Level 6 and 7 pathways into engineering. They hope that the responses will provide more insight into what girls want and how to inspire them to consider a career in engineering.

“We know that students generally choose careers they know about,” Hana says, “and we suspect that the research will show that girls are less likely to opt for engineering because they think it’s mostly a male workplace and that you have to be ‘super good’ at maths and physics. Research shows that girls underestimate their abilities with those subjects.”

“We’re interested to see if rural students have a different understanding if they’re more exposed to engineering in their communities.”

“It’s also a concern that we don’t get a lot of school leavers enrolling in the NZDE and BEngTech – it tends to be people already in the workforce. They might work in a roading crew for a few years and hear about our courses. So, hopefully the research will give us insight into how we can encourage girls into engineering”

Sharing the research findings

The research results will be given to the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) which has responsibility for the Engineering e2e programme. The report will include recommendations to TEC as to how the research can be used; this might be:

  • Guidelines to encourage more female enrolments in engineering
  • Avenues for future research
  • Using the project as a template to share with other institutes of technology and polytechnics.

Following up the research

The research results could lead to changing promotional campaigns – possibly to approaching different types of schools in different ways.

There is also scope to expand the research project in 2019. This could potentially involve:

  • Running a more in-depth project
  • Reaching more rural Otago students
  • Looking at attitudes in Christchurch and Auckland where students may be aware of the university engineering pathway.

 “This year’s results could be accurate for Dunedin,” Hana says, “but would they be true nationally?”

The engineering department is also looking at running focus groups with current and graduate female engineering students, looking at how they got into engineering and their experience of the course. This, in turn, could influence marketing strategies to reach school students.

Case study: Collaborating with local school to engage girls with engineering
Case study: Making links and developing resources
Case study: Teaching subjects in an engineering context

 Our thanks to Joelle, Hana and John for their time and advice; if you have any queries please contact

July 2018