By Margaret Loftus
RETENTION IS A BIG ISSUE IN ENGINEERING
EDUCATION, AND MORE SCHOOLS ARE DEVELOPING PROGRAMS TO KEEP
STUDENTS FROM DROPPING OUT.
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
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."
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
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."
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
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
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,
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
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,