This Complete Research paper describes a change in the curriculum of a First-Year course to address retention rates in the College of Engineering at Colorado State University. There is a major concern over the fact that the graduation rate within the college is consistently under 50%. Addressing First-Year retention rates is the first step in improving this long term figure. In addition, based on industry feedback there is a lack of software proficiency amongst graduates. This includes computational tools such as Matlab, which is a commonly utilized programming and analysis package in engineering. This work proposes a curriculum change from traditional lecture to an active learning environment in a First-Year Introduction to Mechanical Engineering course of 145 students. The goal of this approach is to improve First-Year student retention rates and computational capabilities in Mechanical Engineering with a single broad emphasis.
Multiple changes throughout the course, from specific day to day in-class activities to the addition of laboratory sessions, are utilized. Class time emphasizes student engagement, including team design problems such as building the tallest structure from a single piece of paper in fifteen minutes. Another example to engage students in unit conversions and unit introductions is asking the question “what is a Joule?”. This is answered with hands-on activity where students feel the weight of a softball and raise it against the force of gravity, requiring roughly one Joule of energy. In place of one day of traditional lecture, once a week laboratories are delivered focusing on software skills such as Microsoft Excel and Matlab, providing students with hands on learning opportunities. These laboratories of no more than fifteen students are delivered by Learning Assistants, which offers one-on-one time with a peer-assistant, encourages an educational community, and develops the leadership and educational skills of the Learning Assistants themselves. The laboratories also present an additional space to work on “soft skills” such as oral presentations in a less intimidating environment. This peer learning model along with variations in teaching style and active engagement aims to support students who are at a high risk of dropout, transfer out of the college, or fail to properly learn software tools.
To evaluate proposed improvement in retention and proficiency, multiple evaluations will be utilized. A concept inventory will be conducted after completion of the course. This inventory will be used to compare the Matlab proficiency between two goups: students who were taught content in a lecture only environment (n=73), and students who were taught with a laboratory component (similar projected sample size). Additionally, the midterm scores from a Matlab based course which follows this introductory course will be compared for these two groups. Finally, both groups of students will be surveyed to reflect on their educational experience in Introduction to Mechanical Engineering as it relates to proficiency with computational tools, general understanding of course content, and anticipated graduation. The overarching goal of this work is to better provide students with the means to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, and more importantly, succeed as professional mechanical engineers.
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