Re-Engineering Engineering Education to Retain Students

Vancouver, British Columbia—Alarmed by the tendency of engineering programs to hemorrhage undergraduates, at a time when the White House has called for an additional million degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields—known as STEM—education researchers here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science proposed ways to improve the numbers. At a symposium on engineering education, one group outlined a broad revamping of curriculum, while another proposed more modest changes to pedagogy.

The re-evaluation of curriculum is an effort called Deconstructing Engineering Education Programs. The project is led by Ilene Busch-Vishniac, the provost of McMaster University in Ontario and a mechanical engineer, and involves faculty from nine universities, including large public institutions like the University of Washington and small private ones like Smith College.

Patricia Campbell, a collaborator on the project who leads an education-consulting firm in Groton, Mass., said that the time to get an engineering degree was a major reason that undergraduates dropped the major. “We call these four-year schools,” she said. “But 64 percent of STEM undergraduates complete their degrees in six years.” In engineering, she continued, that was largely due to two factors: a proliferation of courses, called “topic creep,” and rigid chains of prerequisite courses that students had to follow to move on to higher courses.

Matthew Ohland, an associate professor of engineering education at Purdue University, added that the rigid structure not only prevented students from getting out of these programs with a degree, but it also kept potential students from migrating in. For example, he said, an industrial-engineering program might insist its students take a particular economics course to fulfill the program’s general-education requirements. But sophomores and juniors might have already taken a related but different econ course. To join the program, they would have to retake economics, a strong disincentive.

Ms. Campbell (who was formerly a professor at Georgia State University) and her colleagues attempted to streamline this system, focusing on mechanical engineering. At nine schools, they identified mechanical engineering courses that covered 2,149 topics. But after closely looking at the coursework, they found a number of similar topics with different names, and narrowed the list of unique topics to 833. Ultimately they grouped the courses on those topics into 12 clusters, each of which contained chains of classes focused around closely related topics, and required few courses from another cluster. The clusters covered all 833 topics, and instructional times ranged from 52 to 115 hours, with an average length of 91 hours. That corresponds, roughly, to four hours of course time each week for one semester on the low end or one year on the high end.

That means, Ms. Campbell said, that a mechanical-engineering student could cover all the required topics, but do so in four years, by taking three clusters each year.

It would also, she claimed, meet the standards of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, because it includes everything that accredited engineering programs do. Mr. Ohland, who works as an evaluator for the board, said the accreditor is open to new approaches like these, although he acknowledged there were many of what he called “horror stories” about the accreditor being very traditional and resistant to change. “If you do something too wild, you have to convince [the board] that it won’t hurt students.”

No institution has adopted the cluster formulation. Ms. Campbell said that faculty members were leery of the new course formulations, which grouped topics that they usually taught with other topics they did not. The solution, she said, was team-teaching of a course, but that’s something that pushes many professors beyond their comfort levels.

A less-radical approach would be to improve teaching techniques in existing courses, said another symposium participant, Susan S. Metz, executive director of the Lore-El Center for Women in Engineering and Science at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. She leads the Engage project, a consortium of engineering schools at 30 institutions, supported by the National Science Foundation, to identify best practices in teaching.

Research points to three practices that improve retention of engineering students, she said: “And they are straightforward strategies that call for a minimal amount of change in higher education.” One is to use everyday examples that students can relate to. “So if you are teaching engineering in Florida, don’t use examples from snow sports,” she noted. But if you are teaching a course in fluid dynamics, soap bubbles are good examples.

Second, she said, work to improve students’ spatial-visualization skills. Research has identified frustration with spatial-visualization tasks as a primary reason that students drop engineering majors, she pointed out. But testing students’ abilities in this area and offering extra help to those who test poorly increases their success in courses, a number of studies have shown. Short remedial courses give students practice at rotating three-dimensional shapes, either in a computer program or with plastic blocks, and also let them practice manipulating engineering blueprints.

Finally, improve faculty-student interactions. “Mentoring, tutoring, and just general attitude make a big difference in retention,” she said.

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