The national effort to remain a leader in scientific exploration and technological development has redoubled educational efforts to not only introduce students to the field of engineering at younger and younger grade levels, but also to place more effort on retaining the students who ultimately choose engineering as a career path. As a result, more institutions are placing a higher value on first-year engineering introductory courses, a key component of retention.
However, with engineering being an incredibly broad field, there is relatively little agreement from institution to institution on the content and skills to address in a first-year course. Moreover, previous studies have shown that students more often leave their engineering degree programs due to a lack of interest and/or a poor classroom environment than for reasons related to challenging technical content. To address these issues, researchers have investigated best practices for retaining students through tutoring and mentoring and identified positive correlations between classroom practices and student confidence and commitment. Yet gaps still exist in our understanding of the value students place on their first-year coursework, particularly as they relate to their later experiences in engineering classes and professional work.
At a private, Midwestern university’s college of engineering, all students are required to complete a two-course (six total credit hours) first-year engineering sequence. While this course sequence is expected to provide a common foundation upon which all students are able to build their knowledge bases and skillsets, little is known of the students’ true perceptions of their first-year experiences. To address this knowledge gap, four focus groups were conducted with a total of 12 juniors and seniors in the college. During these focus groups, students discussed their first-year engineering courses and how these experiences supported their later coursework and professional work (e.g., internships). Sixteen juniors and seniors completed surveys to gather further supporting evidence.
Outcomes from the subsequent analysis are intended to provide deeper insight into the value that students place on their initial experiences with engineering at the college level, allowing educators to better involve first-year students in class while at the same time prepare them for their chosen professional pathways. The following research questions drive this study:
After experiencing higher-level engineering coursework . . .
1) What value do students place on their first-year engineering experiences?
2) What connections do students make between their first-year engineering experiences and subsequent engineering courses and professional experiences?
3) What technical content and skills do students suggest for a first-year engineering experience?
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