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Author ORCID Identifier



Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Benita Barnes

Subject Categories

Science and Mathematics Education


Today’s STEM professionals are called upon to meet the nation’s technical challenges with innovative technologies that push the boundaries of our current understanding and practices. While the total number of STEM graduates may be sufficient for the number of STEM jobs, many lack the specific competencies needed for practice, suggesting that science and engineering graduates may not be adequately prepared for careers in the STEM fields (U.S. Joint Economic Committee, 2012).

Using a phenomenographical approach, the researcher interviewed 18 STEM professionals to understand the qualitatively different ways in which they gained the technical and professional competencies needed to be successful engineers and scientists. As students, each of the participants in the study participated in some type of experiential learning such as a problem-based learning class, makerspace, internship, or research. The study utilized Experiential Learning Theory and Social Cognitive Career Theory as the theoretical frameworks. The study did not directly assess the four stages of Kolb and Fry’s Experiential Learning Theory (Kolb & Fry, 1975), however, the analysis of the interviews confirmed that hands-on experiences result in improved technical and self-directed learning skills as described in the literature. Results of the study indicate that a wide range of relevant, hands-on experiences can improve a student’s ability to use math, science and engineering principles, problem-solve, and locate, organize and analyze data from multiple sources. In addition to internships, these types of experiences can take a variety of forms such as problem-based learning courses, makerspaces, research projects, design projects, and student clubs. However, the study also shows that some knowledge, skills and behaviors are only gained in the workplace or from background, contextual influences such as parents, siblings, sports teams, or scouts.

Social Cognitive Career Theory contributed to the understanding of how participants learned the skills and competencies needed for practice. While useful, this model was insufficient and results of the study led to the development of a three-phase Social Cognitive Experiential Learning Model that describes how learning environments, types of problems, and interactions with others contribute to the learning process. Results of the study have implications for both academia and industry.