Are good stu­dents born smart or are they self-​​made strivers– or is it some com­bi­na­tion of the two? Recently a team of North­eastern Uni­ver­sity Col­lege of Engi­neering fac­ulty mem­bers dug deeper into these questions.

What they dis­cov­ered and put into writing earned them the 2010 Amer­ican Society for Engi­neering Education’s Paper of the Year, and the Best Pre­sen­ta­tion award at the organization’s annual conference.

Pro­fes­sors Bev­erly Jaeger, Susan Freeman and Richard Whalen, inspired by exten­sive research by psy­chol­o­gist Angela Duck­worth, hypoth­e­sized that stu­dents could be better poised for suc­cess if they pos­sessed greater “grit” along with a base­line level of aptitude.

Grit,” or per­se­vering in the face of set­backs, involves tenacity as well as the ability to be resourceful and seek assis­tance through avail­able resources. The term exem­pli­fies the ability to keep trying while there is still oppor­tu­nity to suc­ceed, noted Jaeger.

The team, with assis­tance from under­grad­uate indus­trial engi­neering stu­dent Rebecca Payne, set up pro­files of stu­dents to better under­stand how fac­ulty can foster this idea of “grit.” They devel­oped a stu­dent survey with 17 ques­tions focused on level of effort, per­se­ver­ance and other mea­sure of grit, designed to yield a “grit score.”

Amongst the researchers’ find­ings was a pre­lim­i­nary con­clu­sion that there are sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ences in grit based on fac­tors such as gender and par­tic­i­pa­tion in orga­nized ath­letics. For example, said Whalen, first-​​year engi­neering females scored higher on grit than their male peers, partly because they are a minority in the engi­neering dis­ci­plines and have to be grit­tier to survive.

Jaeger, Freeman, and Whalen said they hope the research will shed valu­able light on best prac­tices in edu­cating future engi­neers, and they plan to expand the study to include the effects of expe­ri­en­tial edu­ca­tion on grit.

The three instruc­tors also are part of the core team of the Col­lege of Engineering’s Gateway pro­gram, which sup­ports and guides first-​​year stu­dents in their tran­si­tion from high school to col­lege and into their areas of engi­neering interest.