Many mechanical engineering programs tend to have ties to “traditional” teaching methods and curricula, often prevalent in the form of homogeneous examples that faculty may show in lectures and that textbooks tend to utilize for homework problems. Students’ pre-conceived ideas about career options for mechanical engineers can impact enrollment and retention, particularly for under-represented groups. For instance, textbooks for many mechanical engineering subjects mostly use machinery for example problems. The overabundance of these examples, along with the stereotypes that many prospective students have about what mechanical engineers do, often deter good students from choosing to pursue or from staying in this particular field. While examples in other areas are becoming more prevalent (medical devices, robotics, etc.), significant work is yet to be done to help clarify the question for prospective students of “What do mechanical engineers do?”. Providing students with a broader context of careers in mechanical engineering early in their education may help increase both enrollment and retention, particularly of under-represented groups who may be more likely to be turned off by stereotypical examples and career choices, increasing the diversity of professionals in the field.
The work presented here reports on a recent curriculum change with the potential to affect students’ career awareness in the Mechanical Engineering department at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Beginning in the Fall of 2016, a new track was added to an existing sophomore design course, with the main objective to increasing students’ systems thinking skills. Within this new course, systems thinking concepts were presented to the students keeping a second objective in mind: providing a wide variety of examples and case studies representative of different career options that mechanical engineers have. In addition, the topics in the course were presented using an approach designed to not only capture the attention of the students, but to ensure a deep understanding of the topics covered. The examples and case studies presented in the course were based in a number of different fields given the goal of exposing students to different career opportunities within their chosen major.
To assess student perceptions of career options for mechanical engineers, a career awareness questionnaire was developed and employed. Sophomore students enrolled in the systems thinking sophomore design course were given the career awareness survey in pre- and post-tests at the beginning and the end of the semester to gage changes in their perceptions resulting from the new course content. In addition to surveying the sophomore students, freshmen and senior students who had not been exposed to the new course content were also assessed. Initial comparisons between the groups of students show that the introduction of more non-traditional examples and career paths influenced the students’ perceptions of the career options that mechanical engineering graduates can pursue and showcased alternatives that were more attractive to under-represented students.
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