Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Chair

Felicia Roberts

Committee Member 1

Melanie Morgan

Committee Member 2

Bart Collins

Committee Member 3

Marisa Exter


Higher education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) faces a number of challenges. There are many calls for STEM education to make significant changes moving forward, including calls for competency-based learning and greater integration of the humanities. These efforts require systemic change (Reigeluth & Garfinkle, 1994). Systemic change has significant impacts on students, teachers, and other organizational stakeholders. The challenges of systemic change create significant uncertainty and experiences of uncertainty can interact in a number of ways. Communication as a field is well positioned to speak to how many of these challenges can be avoided and/or avoided. Communication theories focused on uncertainty should be integrated into research on systemic change because uncertainty is a defining feature of systemic change in higher education. Uncertainty has been a central focus of communication research for decades. Use of uncertainty theories in these areas needs to focus not only on uncertainty in general, but on how uncertainties become interrelated. This dissertation integrates two of these theories, Problematic Integration Theory (PIT, Babrow, 2007) and the Theory of Managing Uncertainty (TMU, Kramer, 2004). PIT focuses on how individuals integrate evaluations of both the value and the probability of potential outcomes. Most of the time, individuals do not have any difficulty integrating perceived values and probabilities, but when individuals experience uncertainties about and mismatches between these evaluations, they experience

problematic integration (PI). According to PIT, these PIs have the potential to be mutually influential, both within the individual and across individuals. TMU focuses on the processes that individuals use to manage uncertainty. TMU takes an organizational perspective on uncertainty, emphasizing that uncertainties can be experienced at both the individual and organizational levels. In addition, TMU describes how uncertainties experienced at different levels within an organization can be interrelated. Uncertainties experienced at one level in an organization can promote uncertainties elsewhere and can directly impact abilities to manage uncertainty throughout the organization. This dissertation focuses on the Purdue Polytechnic Institute (PPI) as a case study of systemic change in STEM higher education. PPI was created to accomplish several of the aforementioned goals of reform in STEM eduction. It focused on competency-based assessment and integrated humanities into the STEM curriculum using a problem-based, experiential, interdisciplinary approach to learning. The primary source of data analyzed in this dissertation were interviews with students, faculty, and teaching assistants (TAs). These data were part of a longitudinal process of research design which was informed by participant and complete observations, interviews, surveys, and other forms of data collection. Interview responses were coded and analyzed for experiences consistent with uncertainty and the various forms of PI. Experiences of PI were then organized into emergent themes in order to address four research questions: RQ1a: How do students’ descriptions of their experiences reflect PI? RQ1b: What communicative and relational resources do students draw upon to manage uncertainty and PI? RQ2: How do individual and organizational uncertainty interact in this system? RQ3: Are students experiences of uncertainty aligned with the organizations stated values and goals?

Students expressed experiences which were consistent with all four types of PI described by Babrow (2007). Students typically experienced ambiguity while entering the program. As they settled in, they found that some aspects were different than they expected, leading some ambiguities to resolve to experiences of diverging probability and evaluation and other forms of PI to appear. In general, students believed that these differences from what they expected made the program better overall, even though they also promoted experiences of uncertainty and PI. Most of the differences that students encountered were due to the unique approach used in PPI, especially its combined focus on student autonomy, student-directed learning, individualized instruction, its focus on learning-by-doing in context, and its use of multiple faculty members for each class. Although students strongly preferred the “learning-by-doing” approach they encountered in the program, they had significant problems with “feeling like they were learning” due to the ways that the program departed from the traditional methods that they were used to based on their prior experiences. Because students were accustomed to a style of education that placed responsibility for managing student uncertainty about how to accomplish project outcomes on faculty members rather than on the students themselves, they had trouble with recognizing their own learning without the preemptive uncertainty management they were used to. Some students characterized this lack of preparatory instruction as an instructor misbehavior (Kearney, Plax, Hays, & Ivey, 1991). The non-standard approach to grading, focusing on competencies evaluated through a badging system, also increased ambiguity due to the students being unfamiliar with this approach. The presence of multiple faculty members was seen as a net benefit that, in some ways, helped students to manage uncertainty by making additional resources available to them, but also increased student experiences of uncertainty at times due to different faculty members having different approaches and different answers to student questions. Other features of the program, such as the lower penalties for failure in a program using a competency-based approach, served to reduce student experiences consistent with uncertainty and PI by lowering the stakes of failure.

Students also reported experiences consistent with uncertainty and PI that seemed to be driven by participation in a program undergoing systemic change, especially in areas such as the structure of the program, its future success, and whether it would help them to achieve their personal career goals. Both faculty and students empathized with the uncertainty experienced by one another which was driven by systemic change. There is clear evidence for interaction between uncertainty at different levels in the organization. Uncertainty at the university and program level drove individual uncertainties for students and for faculty members, and also limited their abilities to manage uncertainty. To manage their experiences of uncertainty and PI, students tended to turn to people, especially peers and faculty members, course products, and their own experiences in the program. Overall, student experiences consistent with uncertainty and PI tended to reduce as they gained familiarity with the program. PIT and TMU were productive theories for analysis in this context. Uncertainty clearly occurred at many different levels within the organization, and experiences consistent with PI were plentiful. Future research should continue to combine these theories to investigate systemic change in STEM higher education. Applying additional theories commonly used in communication research is likely to be productive in future research as well. Based on the data analyzed in this dissertation, Expectancy Violation Theory, dialectic theories, and Attribution Theory seem to hold particular promise in future research. Furthermore, this research highlights ways that PIT and TMU can be extended in the future. Although TMU focuses on uncertainty management, it is likely that many of its insights may apply to the management of PI as impossibility and as diverging probability and evaluation—forms of PI driven by certainty rather than uncertainty. TMU can likely be extended to include the management of these forms of PI in addition to uncertainty. Likewise, PIT may be extended to identify an additional form of PI, “despair,” which would be a counter-balance to impossibility at the other end of the continuum of diverging probability and evaluation where there is a very

high probability of a strongly dispreferred outcome (as opposed to impossibility, where there is a very low probability of a strongly preferred outcome). STEM programs in higher education which are undertaking systemic change can take a number of steps to reduce detrimental experiences of uncertainty and PI in their students and other organizational stakeholders. Acting to socialize new group members, making resources available to students, and recognizing that flexibility will be necessary to react to unanticipated emergent complications will help minimize these detrimental experiences of uncertainty and PI.