Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


School of Biological Sciences

First Advisor

Rebekka D. Gougis


Use of self-determination theory (SDT) within the science classroom focuses primarily on ways to integrate intrinsic motivation into students' identity. Experiential learning plays a large role in promoting learning by shaping students' interests, identity, and intrinsic aspirations. This phenomenological research study sought to understand how experiential learning experiences helped influence career aspirations of graduate students within ecological disciplines. By determining how their experiences met three basic psychological needs outlined by SDT (competence, autonomy, and relatedness), we were able to examine which regulators drove motivation.

In the qualitative pilot study, participants developed a genuine enjoyment and appreciation for their discipline as they began engaging in more complex research. As interest grew, so did levels of competence and autonomy. Students were able to apply their experiences in novel ways which enabled them to see the connectivity of their discipline and develop internal aspirations for science. In addition to aspirations supported by experiential learning opportunities, mentorship, family/cultural support, and the desire for a work-life balance further shaped their career aspirations and satisfied the basic need for relatedness. This boost of confidence and sense of belonging helped participants shed doubts and other external pressures that allowed students to believe that they might not belong in science. Finding from this pilot study helped inform the development of a larger quantitative survey.

The Biological Research Experience Survey (BRES) sought to understand how the basic psychological needs of self-determination theory are being satisfied during undergraduate research experience. Using a numerous previously validated instruments from the SDT and science education literature, the BRES connected a number of underlying constructs through exploratory factor analysis. Five factors emerged, accounting for 62.19% of the variance, and were named Scientific Identity, Mentor Support, Research Motivations, and Science Degree Aspirations. The alignment of these latent factors with SDT further suggests that this framework may be useful for capturing the variation associated with these research experiences. The design of this survey helps account for the within-subject variability, allows for meaningful conclusions with smaller sample sizes, and may prove a valuable evaluation tool small programs such as UREs. Further implementation of this framework may help identify resources that motivate students toward STEM careers and enable students, and particularly those from historically under-represented groups to reach their potential in STEM disciplines.


Imported from ProQuest McDevitt_ilstu_0092N_10757.pdf


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