Distinguished Dissertation Research in Engineering Education

Michelle Mora

Dr. Michelle Mora is a 2019-20 University at Albany Presidential Distinguished Dissertation Award recipient. (Photo by Patrick Dodson)


Why do capable students majoring in STEM in the US switch to another field or drop out of college? How can this nation’s institutions of higher education improve STEM teaching and learning as well as student support systems in these majors?These are questions facing higher education policy makers across the nation.

They are particularly relevant for engineering sciences as engineering requires mastery in all aspects of STEM, and individuals who possess these skills are valuable in a variety of sectors in our economy.3

UAlbany’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences Senior Academic Advisor Michelle Mora set out to explore solutions to these challenges in STEM education by focusing her doctoral research on these very issues. As a result, she not only contributed an interesting perspective to this national conversation, but also earned a 2019-20 University at Albany Presidential Distinguished Dissertation Award for her masterfully researched and written dissertation, “Undergraduate Engineering Students' Agency in Professional Socialization: Evidence From a Capstone Design Lab.”

Dr. Mora’s study focuses on the professional socialization of undergraduate engineers, particularly their experiences prior to college enrollment and increased mobility towards professionalism and independent decision-making (i.e., agency) as they work through their programs. The study transcends traditional professional socialization literature which focuses primarily on one-way effects of professional education. 

“In the traditional framework, students are viewed as ' blank slates,’ ' empty vessels’ and 'passive recipients’ of socialization content,” said Mora. “Drawing from my professional experiences as an admissions counselor and academic advisor, I know this is not the case. Students bring values, knowledge, bias, and preconceived ideas of their intended major.”

Citing her students as the motivation behind her dissertation, Mora says she witnessed their socialization tactics from their self-initiated learning activities (i.e., research, internships, and volunteer work) that were meaningful and relevant to their major, to their transition to “acting like a professional” as a result of these activities. However, she maintains this appears to be unseen and unutilized in the classroom.

Another motivator for Mora’s desire to improve student success is her own biography and experiences. As the daughter of parents who immigrated to this country from Colombia, she never dreamed of earning a doctorate because of her socio-economic status and identity. Since her family only spoke Spanish at home, she did not learn English until she entered kindergarten. Navigating school was very difficult for her as she and her mother were learning English together and often could not make sense of her homework. Her mother persisted in reminding her that education was paramount, and by the time she was in high school, she came into her own as a student. When she entered college, she had embraced her identity as a confident Latina ready to tackle the challenges ahead of her.

Michelle Mora being hooded at the UAlbany 2019 Doctoral Commencement Ceremony
The moment Michelle Mora was hooded by dissertation committee chair Hal Lawson at the May 2019 UAlbany Doctoral Commencement Ceremony.

She says, “Students need more than financial aid to succeed – this is why my research is important. We need to understand the biography of our students in order to understand what type of help they need. After all, they are not blank slates. We cannot continue to generalize the needs of our students. As advisors, we see this and address these needs on the ground level, but policy must reflect our day-to-day initiatives.”

Dr. Mora’s dissertation committee was chaired by Dr. Hal A. Lawson, a professor of both Educational Policy and Leadership and Social Welfare. 

“Michelle Mora's dissertation research provides timely, important knowledge and understanding about undergraduate engineering students' recruitment, professional education and overall socialization, and engineering faculty members' pivotal roles in developing students' skills and abilities for engineering-related problem-solving” said Lawson.  “Significantly, Michelle discovered that the engineering students demonstrated their initiative in two ways: (1) They formed social networks for mutual assistance and professional learning; and (2) Some complemented their formal program with additional internships and MOOCs. These findings have immediate implications for undergraduate engineering programs.”

Also on Mora’s dissertation committee was CEAS Associate Dean and Professor James R. Moulic. “Michelle’s role as an undergraduate student advisor in CEAS provided her with a unique, and very direct, perspective of students as they progressed through all aspects of their engineering education” said Moulic.  “From this position, she was able to observe, analyze and develop her innovative conclusions of the impact of student agency on the professional specialization in undergraduate engineering education.  Her dissertation is an important contribution to education theory.”

Michelle Mora is a graduate of UAlbany’s School of Education, where she earned her PhD in Educational Policy and Leadership in May 2019. She would like to further explore the relationship between student agency and professional education outcomes – especially in engineering. 

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(Story written by Daphne Jorgensen)