Do students’ implicit values influence their decision to pursue STEM-related careers? And how do the ethical codes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines influence those who pursue careers in these fields and those who persist in their professional development?

These are questions a UCF research team is trying to answer to strengthen the STEM pipeline and help keep America globally competitive.

The power of the National Science Foundation-funded study is that it focuses on institutional transformation, will be conducted at UCF and involves hundreds of students pursuing STEM fields, says lead investigator Jonathan Beever. Beever is an assistant professor of philosophy and the founding director of UCF’s Center for Ethics. Faculty members in STEM fields will also be involved to determine and measure disciplines’ values while focus groups will help spur the conversations about how values potentially clash.

Some students may want to pursue a specific discipline, but they may struggle to reconcile their orientation to the world with the values that shape the discipline. This struggle matters to future success of both student and institution.

“If the nation wants to be the global leader in science and technology, students must not only select STEM disciplines, but they must stick with them, and that may have a lot to do with alignment of values,” says chemistry and optics Professor Stephen Kuebler, who is a co-investigator of the study and founding associate director of the Center for Ethics. “Our research will reveal how students’ personal values affect their identification with careers in STEM, and to what level those values affect their training, retention and development of ethical practice.”

Beever says the study will not only examine ethics but will also improve understanding of the potential friction students may face when they enter a given STEM field, which he has experienced first-hand.

Initially, Beever majored in philosophy and physics. Although he says he wasn’t a “bad physics student,” he discovered the way he looks at the world and the way physics looks at the world are very different. He knew it wasn’t a good fit and switched gears.

“Better understanding of that idea of fit and friction can help with recruitment, retention and follow-through across disciplines,” says Beever who has contributed to many grant-funded projects exploring the role of ethics in decision making. “And this has big implications for science and technology innovation, in terms of representation in fields, connection to one’s work, and ethical ownership of the outcomes.”

Co-investigator Laurie A. Pinkert, an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric and the university’s director of Writing Across the Curriculum program, has extensive experience in the methodology being used to identify and communicate values among student participants and faculty from math, psychology, engineering, biology and other areas for the study. She was surprised someone hasn’t already taken a deep dive into this area of research, she says.

“There’s been a lot of research into how teams work to accomplish complicated tasks,” Pinkert says. “Studies have looked at everything from size, to personality, to gender. But very little has been done to look at the role of individual and collective valuesuntil now.”

Pinkert noted the impact this project could have for the students who don’t always see themselves well-represented in STEM fields.

“We know that students benefit from ‘seeing’ themselves in their potential career fields, but we don’t know the extent to which ‘seeing’ one’s self includes being able to identify your own values within your discipline’s codes. This project will help us examine that,” Pinkert says.

The team will begin surveying students this semester. The $599,301 grant will enable the researchers to follow students for five years and measure the impacts of strategies such as workshops on the articulation and negotiation of value conflicts.

“It’s about reshaping the culture of UCF from students up through faculty and administrators to have a growing focus on the complicated roles values play in shaping the way we make decisions,” Beever says. “Our project explores a way to help students look at the values that guide their own paths into and through their disciplines, and then at the roles values may play in shaping disciplinary enculturation writ large.”

Once the project is complete, the team hopes to have a positive impact nationwide.

“We think UCF, given its size and momentum, has the potential not only to shift but to lead a broader transformation of peer institutions,” Beever says. “By partnering leadership with faculty, and emphasizing the student experience, we are working to bring everyone together to strengthen UCF’s internal culture and, as a result, its regional and national impact.”