The Wright State Model (WSM) for Engineering Mathematics Education is a meaningful disruption to the traditional required engineering calculus sequence as it offers a one-semester laboratory-based immersion into the ways mathematical concepts—including trigonometry, vectors, derivatives, integrals, and differential equations—are actually used by engineers. Research from Wright State, as well as other implementation sites, has robustly demonstrated that completing the WSM course during the first semester of college leads to boosts in retention rates and engineering persistence, important factors for all institutions seeking to keep engineering students on track for a future in engineering. However, the challenges of starting up a new implementation of the WSM at any institution are numerous and indicative of the obstacles inherent to making any significant curricular change within the rigidly sequenced course flows of traditional engineering degree programs. At the University of Colorado Boulder, the local implementation of the WSM has just completed its second full iteration. In year one, the pilot course featured less than twenty-five students, one instructor, and two teaching assistants, with all course activities housed in a single room dedicated to the class. Based on positive outcomes from the first year, administrators decided to scale-up the WSM course dramatically: the second year of the course featured over one hundred students, one instructor, and five teaching assistants, with course activities spread across multiple lecture, lab, and recitation sections meeting at different places in time and space.
This research paper explores the consequences of this scaling for the students enrolled in the course, as well as for the instructors, teaching assistants, and facilities involved in course implementation. A mixed-methods approach featuring quantitative data including student academic performance metrics, demographic characteristics, and pre- and post-survey results related to attitudes and motivations to persist in engineering are combined with qualitative data from individual student interviews and textual responses to biweekly reflection questions to understand how the course changed from year one to year two. Overall, we find that while scaling-up presents unavoidable challenges to the instructional team with regards to resource constraints, logistics, and engagement of a larger audience with a wider distribution of incoming preparation levels, the larger size of the course also presents some unexpected benefits to students. Mainly, the research team was surprised to find that even students who dropped the course derived substantial benefits from the informal social relationships forged during the first few weeks of classes. We share our findings with the first-year engineering education audience to continue the conversation about how to meaningfully create learning environments – at-scale – which can support the needs of all incoming first-year students in engineering.
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