This Work in Progress paper will examine the recent changes in the First Year program for engineering students undertaken at X University, a large (about 4000 first-year engineering students annually) Southwestern state institution. These changes were motivated by the desire to improve the retention rate of first-year students in engineering, especially in the transition from freshman to sophomore year. The issue of retention is present at almost all institutions of higher education; it is especially important at state-supported schools where 1) political institutions provide greater scrutiny of outcomes, and 2) the large student body means greater heterogeneity in high-school preparation for college.
Prior to the fall of 2018, the College of Engineering at X University taught all freshmen a two-term Introduction to Engineering sequence. The course content had evolved widely over the years, and contained aspects of engineering design, programming, and basic problem-solving skills, among many other topics. Students also took a standard set of calculus, physics and chemistry courses in their first year. In analyzing what were the impediments to success in the first-year, it was found that while the first-year engineering course passed 94% of its enrolled students on average, the math and physics courses had pass rates of around 70%. A committee of faculty from the Colleges of Engineering and Science worked to develop an approach that would address this retention issue; because of state curricular requirements and the desire to limit the scope of the changes, the committee focused on the integration of physics and engineering as a first-take on the problem. The committee developed a new three-term sequence of courses which both teach programming, and more importantly integrate the first year and a half of engineering and physics in a common set of lectures and labs. One opportunity which this “reboot” allowed was significant enhancement in the physics labs, which now focus on engineering application of the physical principles taught in lecture.
While certain aspects of the first-year are common to all institutions (i.e. acclimation to college, dealing with expectations of greater rigor in classes, providing motivation for students to continue in engineering), one challenge faced specifically by the program at X University is size. Because of the large number of students who start the program every year, many strategies for increasing retention and motivation which have been implemented with success at smaller schools (with perhaps 100-200 entering students per year) become infeasible when the number of entering students approaches 4000, as it does at X University. X University also has a number of satellite campuses, and coordination among the diverse locations presents additional challenges.
Assessment of this curriculum change has only just begun, since the courses have been in a rolling release since the fall of 2018, and the fall 2019 was the first time that all three courses in the sequence were taught. Initial analysis of student success and student retention has been undertaken using aggregated data taken from the institutional database. This database allows tracking of student cohorts, and as more terms pass and the number of students in some of the smaller subsets of the population grows to statistical significance (and to the point where individual students cannot be identified), determination of the efficacy of the new curriculum for different groups within the large student body will be examined.
It is anticipated (and hoped) that the new curriculum will lead to an improvement in total retention percentage in the College of Engineering. An additional future result will be guidance on strategies for retention of at-risk sub-populations of this large student body. Finally, there have already been certain best-practice “lessons-learned” on how to work across college boundaries for the greater success of students.
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