NSF grant helping Kettering, University of Michigan researchers study how individuals returning to academia learn

Everything you learn, you are fitting together with what you know and what you think you know. You’re constructing knowledge in your head. You are putting all the pieces together in your head as you learn them.”

Dr. Diane Peters, Mechanical Engineering faculty at Kettering University, in partnership with the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching at the University of Michigan, has been awarded a three-year  $367,094 grant from the National Science Foundation to study engineering education at the collegiate level.

Specifically, Peters and her colleagues at the University of Michigan will be studying how individuals who transition from industry back to academia to earn a master’s degree learn once they re-enter the classroom.

“This is a grant for fundamental research on how people learn. I actually got interested in this because I was a returning student myself,” Peters said. “Learning is different when you have work experience. You see things differently and you learn things differently.”

While working full-time at Mid-West Automation Systems, Peters started her master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Illinois – Chicago in 1996 and finished it in 2000, while working at Western Printing Machinery Company. At this point she thought she was done with school only to return again to complete her doctorate in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan in 2010.

“I was significantly older than many of my classmates and I had a lot of experience that they didn’t,” Peters said. “It was interesting because I was at a different place in my life.”

Peters’ previous research on this topic utilized the psychology principle of “Expectancy Value Theory” which suggests that individuals are examining three factors when making decisions: their expectations of success, value of success and how much success will cost. The value of success could be utility, personal fulfillment or general interest in the subject matter.

In preparation for the NSF grant application, Peters and her counterpart at the University of Michigan, Shanna Daly, conducted a pilot study with a small sample of graduate students who returned to school at least five years removed from the completion of their undergraduate degrees.

“We found that our group of people were going back for utility,” Peters said. “They needed this degree for some purpose.”

Peters’ study will specifically focus on students returning for their master’s degrees. To date, she’s formed partnerships with Kettering, University of Michigan, Lawrence Tech and the University of North Dakota and is seeking out other schools to increase their potential data set.

“Part of the benefit is that if we have this information, Universities will be better able to attract and retain students who want to go back and get their master’s degrees,” Peters said. “It will enhance the educational environment for everybody.”

The grant will allow Peters to hire a full-time post-doctoral research fellow in Engineering Education at Kettering to assist with conducting the study, which will be based in both quantitative and qualitative methods and involve analyzing data using the learning theories of constructivism. The theory suggests that individuals will learn differently based on their experiences. For the purposes of this study, it may indicate that adults who return to school for their graduate degree require a learning environment that complements their work experiences.

“Everything you learn, you are fitting together with what you know and what you think you know,” Peters said. “You’re constructing knowledge in your head. You are putting all the pieces together in your head as you learn them. What you’ve done and what your work experiences have been is helping you learn.”