PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo - JANUARY 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 5
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

By Margaret Loftus


ON THE COVER: 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 DewarElectromagnetics was the last straw for Giselle Parrelli. The Union College mechanical engineering sophomore's grades had been slipping for more than a year, but it wasn't until this second round of physics that she began to seriously doubt whether engineering was for her. She felt she was struggling when classmates seemed to catch on right away. "That got me mad," Parrelli recalls, "I thought, maybe I don't really have it what it takes."

As a last ditch effort, she went to Union's dean of engineering, Robert Balmer, and tearfully explained to him that while her good grades in high school had been nearly effortless, "I felt like I worked so much harder here and was doing worse." This was completely natural, Balmer assured her. "He said the grades I was getting weren't bad for engineering," she says. "He was really supportive of me and made me feel better about what I was doing."

A generation ago, chances are Parrelli would have found the door to the dean's office slammed shut. Back then, the rigorous freshman and sophomore courses in engineering schools were viewed as a way to weed out weak students. If you couldn't hack it, nobody cared, Balmer says. "They just wanted the best students." But after the wake up call of the 1980s engineering shortage, many colleges realized they couldn't afford to discourage engineering students anymore. "We need as many as possible," says Chris Kroeger, associate dean of engineering and applied science at Washington University in St. Louis, "We want to be a pump, not a filter."

As a result, many schools have spent the last decade revamping their sink-or-swim cultures. Today, approximately 1 in 2 students who enter engineering programs as freshman will graduate in engineering. And while those numbers are up from a generation ago, schools of engineering continue to have their work cut out for them to meet this country's demand for engineers. "Now, when we have a bad spot in the road, we help," Balmer says. The 21st-century freshman engineering student not only has access to the dean but to a safety net of peer mentors, counselors, all-engineering dorms, learning cohorts, summer programs, special course offerings, supplemental instruction, and nurturing the likes of which was largely unheard of 30 to 40 years ago.

Much of the groundwork for these programs was laid to support diversity. For example, Parrelli is involved in Union's Computer Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Scholarship (CSEM) program, funded by a National Science Foundation grant to attract and support underrepresented and financially needy students. Still others are broader in scope. To be sure, some students, like those who are the first generation in their family to go to college, face special challenges. But all students can use some bucking up now and then, especially when they are freshman. To that end, Virginia Tech's college of engineering, for example, was just awarded a $2 million, five-year grant from NSF to expand its undergraduate mentoring and retention programs—previously available only to underrepresented minorities—to all incoming students. "The freshman-to-sophomore transition is critical," says Bevlee Watford, associate dean for academic affairs at Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, "The majority of drop-outs among engineering undergraduates occur at this stage, but most students who make a successful transition to sophomore year will graduate."

What is it about engineering programs that turns off nearly half of the first-year students? The first clue is the students themselves, most of whom excelled in high school and didn't exactly have to knock themselves out doing it. So in addition to going through one of the biggest transitions in their lives, cracking the books has taken on a whole new meaning. "Here, they have to study five or six hours a night," explains Pete Gustafson, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology's vice president for student affairs, "so it's going to be a real awakening. Obviously, half of them are going to be in the bottom half of the class."

That means that some of them are faced with a C or D for the first time in their lives. "The student may not be able to interpret a weak grade and the parents can be just as blown away that Johnny didn't do so well on that first physics test," says Diane Souvaine, chair of Tufts School of Engineering's computer science program, "but just because you blow one test doesn't mean you don't belong in engineering." A student needs to know that getting a C isn't the end of their life, Balmer adds. "You don't have to get A's all the time."

Freshman Angst

Nevertheless, first-years who have their noses to the grindstone may wonder to what end, exactly. Physics, calculus, chemistry, and other foundation courses leave little room for discovering the joys of engineering. "The freshman engineering year is not that exciting," Watford admits. "The students look around and see other [nonengineering] students not working hard and they say ‘why am I killing myself for this?'" In fact, unless they know someone who is an engineer, they may have no idea why. Engineering is rarely taught in high schools. "The reason that they go into engineering is that someone told them they are good in math and science," says Kate Drake, director of student support programs at Syracuse University. "There are no role models or television shows to let them know what an engineer does." Without knowing what to set their sights on, Drake says students may give up too soon.

Instead of waiting for engineering to get its own version of ER or Law and Order, many schools are working on offering more engineering fare, earlier. "In a lot of engineering programs, it's pleasure deferred," Souvaine says. "Some cohorts are less good at that." To engage such students, Tufts offers several half-credit classes on things like earthquakes, fuel-cell technology, and building a radio. "It gives people a sense of what the field is like once they get beyond foundation courses." The courses have been such a hit that several liberal arts majors have switched to engineering after taking them as electives.

More often, a first-year student will encounter a general engineering course, such as the one Matt Ohland teaches at Clemson University. Like many such courses, Ohland's is a survey of various disciplines of engineering. But last year, he raised the bar when he turned his lecture format into a hands-on experience to give students a taste of real-life engineering. "We found that students really needed to find out something about engineering—the workload and what they were to expected to know—as soon as possible," Ohland says. "It really seemed to hurt them if they waited."

Last year, he asked students to turn a single-use camera into a coin-operated camera. This year, the class is building a car. His efforts so far have been working: While the class has become substantially more difficult, 75 percent of the 2003 freshman class returned to engineering this year, the same rate as the 2002 freshman in the lecture series.

Ohland attributes some of his students' success to a small army of undergraduate teaching assistants—junior and senior engineering students—each of whom are assigned to a table of eight freshmen during class. They are there to answer questions and are available for homework help weekday evenings. "Just having them there sends the students a message that we care," Ohland says. "There are some questions that students feel much more comfortable asking someone who is more their peer."

Helping Themselves

Clemson takes this process one step further, as do many schools, by offering Supplemental Instruction (SI). Developed at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in 1973 to help stop attrition in "historically difficult" courses like chemistry, SI is simply a peer-mentored study session. Undergrad facilitators—usually upperclassmen—help freshman and sophomores tackle coursework. Students are also encouraged to study together—something that can be a hard nut to crack with kids who are used to the sort of independent study that got them through high school. "I was the type of person who never asked for help in high school," Parrelli admits. But at Union's SI program, she and her classmates were encouraged to rethink such stoicism. "They urged us to study together."

At Syracuse, a similar effort called Academic Excellence Workshop (AEW) specifically targets calculus, the mastering of which is integral to a student's success in engineering, Drake explains. The program is part of the school's Programs Rooted In Developing Excellence (PRIDE), created to help retain engineering and computer engineering students. Although some of the programs under the PRIDE umbrella are geared toward underrepresented students, AEW is available to everyone in engineering and computer science. In two-hour study sessions, six to eight students work together on extra calculus problems written by Ph.D. students. The group is "facilitated" by fellow undergrads who have excelled in math and science. "They aren't tutoring," Drake says, "just helping the dialogue." In the 10 years since AEW was introduced, participation has grown from 24 students to more than 300.

For more individual guidance, many schools such as Virginia Tech and Syracuse match incoming engineering students with peer mentors. Saugat Sen, a Syracuse computer engineering senior, says that as a freshman, having an upperclassman in the same major to talk to was invaluable. "I could see myself in his shoes in a few years and that was very reassuring." Sen's mentor encouraged him to get involved in activities outside of class that he remains active in today, as well as becoming a peer mentor himself. Such mentors don't just help with academics; they can smooth the adjustment to college social life or as Watford puts it, "tell you where you can get a haircut."

Of course, sometimes there's no substitute for a professional. Many schools offer special support through counselors who advise students on everything from time management to roommate issues to how to handle pressure. When Ebony Frazier, a Syracuse sophomore majoring in computer science, was stumped by a test her freshman year, she panicked. "It was the first time I hadn't finished a test since I was in third grade." While Frazier talks to her parents often, she says they didn't know what she was going through. She began to see a counselor on campus once a week. "Before I came to Syracuse, I was kind of a perfectionist," Frazier admits. "[The counselor] helped me calm down and realize the world wasn't about being perfect and getting straight A's." Frazier ended up getting a B+ on her test—her only B so far—but she says she's OK with it. "I'm more relaxed."

In one form or another, many support programs seek to ease the transition from the high school environment to life on a college campus. "Coming to college for the first time is the most significant transition in life," Ohland says. "They're changing their home, job, friends, financial status, everything—it's all different." In order to provide more structure to that first, crucial year, some schools, like Virginia Tech, cluster freshman into learning cohorts, groups of 10 to 100 students who take the same basic classes for a semester or year. "The literature shows that all students learn better and are retained at higher rates if they are part of an academic community," says César Malavé, assistant dean for recruitment and international programs at Texas A&M's Dwight Look College of Engineering. Texas A&M started clustering students into "Learning Communities" in 1993; today there are 17 groups of 100 freshmen that take the same sections of calculus, physics, and chemistry together. This is especially valuable in a state where many of those kids have come to a big university from a small town, Malavé says. "The idea is that we have 100 students taking courses together so we can build a community within these students."

Living Together

In a similar program at Texas A&M aimed at increasing retention rates and increasing grade point averages for low-income, high-ability students through scholarships, students take common courses but they also live in the same residence hall. Indeed, all-engineering dorms are becoming popular on many campuses. At Clemson, women in engineering have the option of living in a community called WISER (Women in Science and Engineering Residence). And next year, Virginia Tech's Hypatia—a floor in a residence hall strictly for women engineers—will be joined by an all-male counterpart, Galilio.

But isn't being surrounded by a diverse group of people part of the college experience? When engineering students live among the general college population, they may feel peer pressure to slack off, especially when most of their dorm mates head out to party on a Thursday night. "It's really hard on women in engineering to work hard and make a B, while they see dorm mates work a little and make A's," Ohland says. Watford adds that although Virginia Tech's administration was initially concerned about the women in Hypatia being isolated, they found that they studied a lot more. "They may be staying in on a Friday night because they have a paper due. When you put them all in the same residence, they don't stand out anymore," Watford says. "You feel you're with people who understand what you're going through." Jo Howze, associate dean for academic programs at Texas A&M, admits that living among all students at a university is a broadening experience, "but if [these engineering students] don't succeed, it makes no difference." After all, living together encourages a lot of teamwork, he says, "and students learn better from each other and their peers than they learn from faculty."

The statistics say it's working. In the first semester of the Texas A&M residence program, retention rates were 87.2 percent and the average GPA was 2.8. Collegewide, these figures were 75 percent and GPA, 2.54. At Virginia Tech, the GPA for the women who lived in Hypatia at the end of their freshman year in 2003 was 3.05, compared with the control group's GPA of 2.81.

And out of the women who lived in the residence last year, 96 percent have returned to engineering as sophomores, whereas 86 percent of the control group returned. Watford has found the students are practically home-free once they reach sophomore year and are in their major and meeting students with whom they have even more in common. "The further they go along, the less likely it is they will leave engineering."

But students say one of the best community-building experiences happens even before college begins, at increasingly popular summer programs. At these college orientations, incoming students are invited to campus for several weeks the summer before they enter school to get their bearings while they attend a few basic classes like English and math. Some schools offer credit for these classes, others do not. Of course, many incoming students are hesitant to give up their summer fun or work, but the feedback from those who attend is generally positive. While some schools may extend the offer to only underrepresented minorities or other at-risk students, Syracuse's Summer Start program invites all incoming students, typically 25 percent of whom are in the college of engineering and computer science.

Syracuse electrical engineering senior Eric Valentin remembers his summer experience fondly. "I met my closest friends through Summer Start and it was an experience that I will never forget. It helped me get used to the university itself and got me excited for the new year to start." Valentin and others report that the experience creates a bond between participants that lasts all four years of school. "Even to this day, when we see each other, we always say ‘hi' or ‘what's up' regardless if we hang out regularly or not."

This kind of enthusiasm bodes well for retention. "Those students tend to stick it out," Drake says. Since the inception of Syracuse's retention programs, the four-year graduation rate within the college of engineering and computer science has risen approximately 11 percent, and 13 percent within the university. For women, those numbers are 18 percent and 29 percent, respectively. Before the summer program at Virginia Tech was started in 1997, fewer than 30 percent of African American and Hispanic freshman engineering students graduated in engineering. But that number shot up to 52 percent for the first group of students who participated in the summer program and 63 percent for the year after that. While the school's overall retention rate for undergraduate students through graduation is comparable to the national average of 52 percent, Watford's goal with the new NSF-funded programs, including the summer program now open to all engineering students, is to increase freshman and transfer student retention into the second year to 85 percent.

Perhaps the most comforting aspect of the new nurturing atmosphere to students is the open-door policy that now prevails at many engineering colleges. "It's a part of the everyday culture here to drop by a faculty office," Souvaine says. Indeed, it made all the difference to Parrelli, who after her talk with Balmer and a few junior and senior women engineering students, decided to stick it out in mechanical engineering. "They helped me understand that this was the only thing I could see myself doing."

Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Wilmington, N.C.


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