By Mark Matthews*

Why do 40 percent to 50 percent of engineering students switch to other majors or drop out? A recent study of 113 undergraduates who left engineering in 2004, 2007, and 2008 points to three key reasons: poor teaching and advising; the difficulty of the engineering curriculum; and a lack of “belonging” within engineering. Each, in some way, erodes a student’s self-efficacy, or confidence in his or her ability to perform.

The good news is that educators don’t have to start over from scratch. Many engineering schools have found ways to address all three problems. Take teaching and advising. Hundreds of campuses have set up teaching and learning centers, where faculty members can be made aware of the latest findings on different ways students learn and get advice on adjusting their own teaching techniques.

Research shows that the first two years are often crucial to student retention and eventual success. In addition, lecture courses generally have been found to be less effective than active learning. As a result, freshman and sophomore curricula have been revamped at a number of schools to incorporate design projects,student research, rapid instructor feedback, class discussions, and teamwork. Examples abound.

Engineering is not, nor should it be, an easy major. But students aren’t necessarily leaving engineering because they can’t do the work, and research suggests ways to help students over the tough hurdles. Traditional engineering curricula are frontloaded with math, physics, and chemistry, often taught in departments outside engineering. Competence at all three is important to engineering practice, yet too often students fail to grasp their relevance and get easily discouraged.

Now, core science is being coordinated with hands-on engineering problem solving that shows students how it applies and lets them demonstrate mastery. Courses are being retooled in ways that connect across disciplines, such as Penn State’s “Calculus with Engineering Applications.” Schools also have begun to demand that science faculty contribute their best instructors to classes taken by freshmen engineers.

Even with improved, more relevant courses, careful attention needs to be paid early on to students who are at risk of failing or foundering. Advisers must make these students aware of tutorial programs and discourage them from trying to take too many technical courses at a time. Faculty members must accept a shared responsibility for students’ success and be available for help. Inaccessible and unapproachable faculty constitute a big reason capable students leave engineering.

As important as academic advising is the more wide-ranging yet personal task of mentoring. Advisers can assume this role, but others can be found as well: fellow undergraduates, senior faculty no longer involved in research, or engineers working in industry. Good mentoring can help students see themselves as engineers and feel they belong in engineering. In the case of first-generation college students, schools can benefit from enlisting parents and family members in the educational process.

A student’s ability to identify with engineering and feel that he or she belongs in that undergraduate peer group is a key ingredient in retention, particularly for women and students of color entering a still largely male, white field.

Despite abundant examples of improved curricula and a new stress on advising and mentoring, more can be done to enhance the undergraduate engineering experience in ways that attract and keep more students. An October, 2010 study found that “the packed engineering curriculum requires students to make trade-offs between gaining practical/marketable skills and participating in educationally enriching activities.” The authors ask whether faculty demand too stark of a choice from engineering majors, and suggest a “recoceptualization” of programs, “distilling what is most essential and eliminating many of the current prerequisite and major requirements.” That way, students with financial need can work off-campus part time; others can take advantage of semester- or year-abroad programs, independent study, and foreign language programs.

REFERENCES:

Leaving Engineering: A Multi-Year Single Institution Study, Rose M. Marra, University of Missouri, Kelly A. Rodgers, City University of New York, Demei Shen, University of Missouri, Barbara Bogue, Penn State University, Journal of Engineering Education, January, 2012.

Those Who Can, Teach -- Campus centers whet instructors’ appetite for a fresh approach. Mary Lord, Prism, November 2009.

Staying in Engineering: Impact of a Hands-On, Team-Based, First-Year Projects Course on Student Retention, Daniel W. Knight, Lawrence E. Carlson, and Jacquelyn F. Sullivan, Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition.

The Impact of a Discipline-Based Introduction to Engineering Course on Improving Retention, Marc Hoit, Matthew Ohland, University of Florida. Journal of Engineering Education, January 1998.

Understanding Our Students: A Longitudinal Study of Success and Failure in Engineering With Implications for Increased Retention, Leonhard E. Bernold, Joni E. Spurlin, Chris M. Anson, North Carolina State University, Journal of Engineering Education, July, 2007

Classes That Click: Fast, Rich Feedback to Enhance Student Learning and Satisfaction, John C. Chen, California Polytechnic State University, Dexter C. Whittinghill and Jennifer A. Kadlowec, Rowan University, Journal of Engineering Education, April, 2010.

Seeing and Doing: Revamped curricula show freshmen what it means to be an engineer. Mary Lord, Prism, September, 2011.

Staying on Track: Engineering schools used to shrug off high attrition rates. Now they’re working to help students achieve early – and enduring – success. Thomas K. Grose, Prism, February 2008.

A Longitudinal Study of Engineering Student Performance and Retention,

Richard M. Felder, Krista D. Forrest, Lynne Baker-Ward, E. Jacquelin Dietz, Phyllis H. Mohr, North Carolina State University, accessed at http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/long1.pdf, February 25, 2012.

Faculty as a Critical Juncture in Student Retention and Performance in Engineering Programs, Christina M. Vogt, Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education, National Academy of Engineering, Journal of Engineering Education, January 2008.

A Friend, Indeed, Jay Banerjee, Last Word, Prism, January 2008.

How They See Themselves: Students who identify with engineering persist in the field. Holly M. Matusovich, Ruth A. Streveler, and Ronald Miller, Prism, JEE Selects, Nov. 2010.

Why They’re Leaving: To retain students, help them feel they “belong.” JEE Selects, Kelly A. Rodgers and Rose M. Marra, Prism, January, 2012 (adapted from Leaving Engineering: A Multi-Year Single Institution Study cited above)

The Relations of Ethnicity to Female Engineering Students’ Educational

Experiences and College and Career Plans in an Ethnically Diverse

Learning Environment, Julie Martin Trenor, Clemson University, Shirley L. Yu, Consuelo L. Waight, Katherine S. Zerda, and Ting-Ling Sha, University of Houston, Journal of Engineering Education, October, 2008.

Why Do Students Choose Engineering? A Qualitative, Longitudinal Investigation of Students’ Motivational Values, Holly M. Matusovich, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Ruth Streveler, Purdue University, and Ronald L. Miller, Colorado School of Mines, Journal of Engineering Education, October, 2010.

Comparing the Undergraduate Experience of Engineers to All Other Majors: Significant Differences are Programmatic, Gary Lichtenstein, Stanford University, Alexander C. McCormick, Indiana University, Sheri D. Sheppard, Stanford University, and Jini Puma, Indiana University, Journal of Engineering Education, October, 2010.

Retaining Black Students in Engineering: Do Minority Programs Have a Longitudinal Impact? Gennifer Good, Glennelle Hapin, Gerald Halpin, Auburn University, Journal of College Student Retention, Vol. 3, No. 4. 2001-2002.

*Mark Matthews is ASEE’s editorial director.

By Mark Matthews*

Why do 40 percent to 50 percent of engineering students switch to other majors or drop out? A recent study of 113 undergraduates who left engineering in 2004, 2007, and 2008 points to three key reasons: poor teaching and advising; the difficulty of the engineering curriculum; and a lack of “belonging” within engineering. Each, in some way, erodes a student’s self-efficacy, or confidence in his or her ability to perform.

The good news is that educators don’t have to start over from scratch. Many engineering schools have found ways to address all three problems. Take teaching and advising. Hundreds of campuses have set up teaching and learning centers, where faculty members can be made aware of the latest findings on different ways students learn and get advice on adjusting their own teaching techniques.

Research shows that the first two years are often crucial to student retention and eventual success. In addition, lecture courses generally have been found to be less effective than active learning. As a result, freshman and sophomore curricula have been revamped at a number of schools to incorporate design projects,student research, rapid instructor feedback, class discussions, and teamwork. Examples abound.

Engineering is not, nor should it be, an easy major. But students aren’t necessarily leaving engineering because they can’t do the work, and research suggests ways to help students over the tough hurdles. Traditional engineering curricula are frontloaded with math, physics, and chemistry, often taught in departments outside engineering. Competence at all three is important to engineering practice, yet too often students fail to grasp their relevance and get easily discouraged.

Now, core science is being coordinated with hands-on engineering problem solving that shows students how it applies and lets them demonstrate mastery. Courses are being retooled in ways that connect across disciplines, such as Penn State’s “Calculus with Engineering Applications.” Schools also have begun to demand that science faculty contribute their best instructors to classes taken by freshmen engineers.

Even with improved, more relevant courses, careful attention needs to be paid early on to students who are at risk of failing or foundering. Advisers must make these students aware of tutorial programs and discourage them from trying to take too many technical courses at a time. Faculty members must accept a shared responsibility for students’ success and be available for help. Inaccessible and unapproachable faculty constitute a big reason capable students leave engineering.

As important as academic advising is the more wide-ranging yet personal task of mentoring. Advisers can assume this role, but others can be found as well: fellow undergraduates, senior faculty no longer involved in research, or engineers working in industry. Good mentoring can help students see themselves as engineers and feel they belong in engineering. In the case of first-generation college students, schools can benefit from enlisting parents and family members in the educational process.

A student’s ability to identify with engineering and feel that he or she belongs in that undergraduate peer group is a key ingredient in retention, particularly for women and students of color entering a still largely male, white field.

Despite abundant examples of improved curricula and a new stress on advising and mentoring, more can be done to enhance the undergraduate engineering experience in ways that attract and keep more students. An October, 2010 study found that “the packed engineering curriculum requires students to make trade-offs between gaining practical/marketable skills and participating in educationally enriching activities.” The authors ask whether faculty demand too stark of a choice from engineering majors, and suggest a “recoceptualization” of programs, “distilling what is most essential and eliminating many of the current prerequisite and major requirements.” That way, students with financial need can work off-campus part time; others can take advantage of semester- or year-abroad programs, independent study, and foreign language programs.

REFERENCES:

Leaving Engineering: A Multi-Year Single Institution Study, Rose M. Marra, University of Missouri, Kelly A. Rodgers, City University of New York, Demei Shen, University of Missouri, Barbara Bogue, Penn State University, Journal of Engineering Education, January, 2012.

Those Who Can, Teach -- Campus centers whet instructors’ appetite for a fresh approach. Mary Lord, Prism, November 2009.

Staying in Engineering: Impact of a Hands-On, Team-Based, First-Year Projects Course on Student Retention, Daniel W. Knight, Lawrence E. Carlson, and Jacquelyn F. Sullivan, Proceedings of the 2003 American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference & Exposition.

The Impact of a Discipline-Based Introduction to Engineering Course on Improving Retention, Marc Hoit, Matthew Ohland, University of Florida. Journal of Engineering Education, January 1998.

Understanding Our Students: A Longitudinal Study of Success and Failure in Engineering With Implications for Increased Retention, Leonhard E. Bernold, Joni E. Spurlin, Chris M. Anson, North Carolina State University, Journal of Engineering Education, July, 2007

Classes That Click: Fast, Rich Feedback to Enhance Student Learning and Satisfaction, John C. Chen, California Polytechnic State University, Dexter C. Whittinghill and Jennifer A. Kadlowec, Rowan University, Journal of Engineering Education, April, 2010.

Seeing and Doing: Revamped curricula show freshmen what it means to be an engineer. Mary Lord, Prism, September, 2011.

Staying on Track: Engineering schools used to shrug off high attrition rates. Now they’re working to help students achieve early – and enduring – success. Thomas K. Grose, Prism, February 2008.

A Longitudinal Study of Engineering Student Performance and Retention,

Richard M. Felder, Krista D. Forrest, Lynne Baker-Ward, E. Jacquelin Dietz, Phyllis H. Mohr, North Carolina State University, accessed at http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/long1.pdf, February 25, 2012.

Faculty as a Critical Juncture in Student Retention and Performance in Engineering Programs, Christina M. Vogt, Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education, National Academy of Engineering, Journal of Engineering Education, January 2008.

A Friend, Indeed, Jay Banerjee, Last Word, Prism, January 2008.

How They See Themselves: Students who identify with engineering persist in the field. Holly M. Matusovich, Ruth A. Streveler, and Ronald Miller, Prism, JEE Selects, Nov. 2010.

Why They’re Leaving: To retain students, help them feel they “belong.” JEE Selects, Kelly A. Rodgers and Rose M. Marra, Prism, January, 2012 (adapted from Leaving Engineering: A Multi-Year Single Institution Study cited above)

The Relations of Ethnicity to Female Engineering Students’ Educational

Experiences and College and Career Plans in an Ethnically Diverse

Learning Environment, Julie Martin Trenor, Clemson University, Shirley L. Yu, Consuelo L. Waight, Katherine S. Zerda, and Ting-Ling Sha, University of Houston, Journal of Engineering Education, October, 2008.

Why Do Students Choose Engineering? A Qualitative, Longitudinal Investigation of Students’ Motivational Values, Holly M. Matusovich, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Ruth Streveler, Purdue University, and Ronald L. Miller, Colorado School of Mines, Journal of Engineering Education, October, 2010.

Comparing the Undergraduate Experience of Engineers to All Other Majors: Significant Differences are Programmatic, Gary Lichtenstein, Stanford University, Alexander C. McCormick, Indiana University, Sheri D. Sheppard, Stanford University, and Jini Puma, Indiana University, Journal of Engineering Education, October, 2010.

Retaining Black Students in Engineering: Do Minority Programs Have a Longitudinal Impact? Gennifer Good, Glennelle Hapin, Gerald Halpin, Auburn University, Journal of College Student Retention, Vol. 3, No. 4. 2001-2002.

*Mark Matthews is ASEE’s editorial director.