PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - APRIL 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 8
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Lending a Hand - Retention is a big issue in engineering education, and more schools are developing programs to keep students from dropping out. - By Margaret Loftus - Illustration by Nick Dewar Faculty Members Are The Key

The "Lending a Hand" article in the January issue of Prism was refreshing reading as a reminder of the needs and anxieties of prospective and new engineering students. Confidence in their choice of engineering is boosted immensely by knowing that they have ready individual access to caring and qualified engineering faculty.

The open door "Dr. Phil" philosophy practiced by Robert Balmer, dean of engineering at Union College, sure seems like a great model. However, many engineering deans would run for cover if that was the expected norm because of the time such personal counseling would take. What is expected, though, is to "build into the fabric" the idea of faculty mentoring through more regular dedicated contact. That contact should give the students the feeling they are listened to and are learning how to solve problems, not just get answers. (Not always easily accomplished!)

To promote really effective mentoring by faculty, keep classes small—25 or less, have courses taught by faculty members whose primary interest and background are in the area taught, and emphasize open-door office hours for their classroom students as well as their advisees. This may all seem unrealistic, but it is not. It is essentially what I experienced as an undergraduate. I am convinced I would not have had the privilege of teaching in the University of Wisconsin system for 50 years and received the university's Alumni Association Award for Excellence in Teaching and the ASEE's ATT award without the built-in mentoring I took for granted as an undergraduate with small classes and easy access to faculty.

However, that personal contact can have a destructive effect if new faculty, especially, are not aware of the negative effect they can have on the lives of their students.

One case comes to mind: An older student came back to school determined to study engineering—without family support or encouragement. In doing so, she asked many questions of one faculty instructor only to be told that she was "too dumb" to stay in engineering. I saw her immediately afterward and she was ready to quit. With some encouragement and help she decided to hang on, graduated with honors, and went on to obtain a Ph.D. at one of the top-rated engineering schools in the country. She could easily have been an engineering dropout because of the wrong kind of contact.

Faculty members who develop and promote special programs as described in the article should be commended and rewarded, for there is no question that such personal efforts serve to provide inspiration and peace of mind to many students. However, let's not overlook the fact that faculty contact, or what I call faculty mentoring, is more likely to lead to keeping students in the engineering program.

Verne C. Cutler
Professor Emeritus
College of Engineering
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


What do you think?
Send comments to prism@asee.org. Because of space limitations, not all submissions can be published, and those that are may be abridged.


Corrections:
In "Engineering's New Look" (Prism, February, 2005), we incorrectly identified Griselda Gonzales as a mechanical engineering student at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She is actually studying civil engineering. We regret the error.

 

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