With the increased national focus on STEM education, many states now including engineering as part of their education standards for both students and teachers, and the popularity of co-curricular and extracurricular engineering activities, young people have unprecedented ability to explore engineering. The activities both promote outcomes that benefit all students regardless of career aspirations such as increased math and science achievement and greater technological literacy and can also serve as an effective approach to recruiting, preparing, and retaining undergraduate engineering students.
The growth of pre-college engineering programs means that incoming university engineering students will increasingly have had some exposure to engineering prior to matriculation into undergraduate engineering programs. However, the effects of pre-college engineering experiences on undergraduate engineering students are relatively unexplored. To address this lack of understanding, this study uses a mixed-methods exploratory approach to examine how exposure to pre-college engineering programs affects the experiences of university engineering students. Conducting and analyzing phenomenographic interviews with cohorts of first year engineering students yielded five qualitatively different ways undergraduate engineering students experience the transition from pre-college to university engineering. These experiences range from feeling trapped in engineering due to pre-college engineering, to feelings of boredom and frustration due to misalignments between the two sets of experiences, to experiencing a boost in confidence and the ability to help others as a result of participation in pre-college engineering programs.
Utilizing the results of these interviews, we developed a quantitative instrument to explore the relationship between pre-college engineering participation and students’ transitions into first-year engineering programs at a larger scale. We will also report on our continuing exploration of the relationship between pre-college engineering participation and quantitative measures of success in undergraduate engineering, including grades and persistence.
While some undergraduate engineering programs may take into account pre-college engineering experiences when placing students in first-year engineering sections or forming design teams, most undergraduate programs assume little to no formal exposure to engineering prior to matriculation. The results of this research will help engineering administrators, instructors and designers of undergraduate and pre-college curricula adapt to students’ changing needs and abilities as a result of their increased experience with engineering prior to university.
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