By Phillip Wankat & Frank
TO PREVENT DROPOUTS, ENGINEERING
SCHOOLS HAVE TO EXTEND MORE OF A HAND TO STUDENTS.
The obvious way to increase student
retention in engineering is to admit better students.
Alexander W. Astin's study of graduation rates
for the Higher Education Research Institute shows that
the correlation between six-year graduation rates and
the rate expected based on entering characteristics
is 0.81. Thus, 66 percent of the variation in retention
rates between institutions is explained by differences
in the quality of the entering students. Although this
data is for all students, the correlation for engineering
students is undoubtedly similar.
Many schools would be happy to admit
better students. They can do it by providing generous
scholarships to outstanding students, but most schools
don't have those kinds of resources. Short of
that, there are a number of steps that schools can take
to keep students in engineering.
First, they have to take action fairly
quickly—many students decide within the first
10 weeks whether they are going to stay at a university.
Since living on campus is known to make students feel
more connected to a university, some engineering colleges
have developed special purpose areas in residence halls,
such as a floor for women engineering students. Commuters
also appreciate an informal place to meet, with lockers
to store books.
Orientation programs can also help
first-year students cope with the transition to college.
Extensive programs in the summer and during the first
semester help engineering schools retain students: teaching
them how to study, how to take tests, and how to manage
Honors programs and merit scholarships
programs also make students feel special and help them
bond with the university. Students in honors programs
stay in engineering at higher rates than students with
matching characteristics who don't have those
kinds of benefits.
Students who get to work individually
with professors tend to do better academically. This
includes serving as a paid tutor or working on a research
project. To affect retention, these activities must
occur in the first year or early in the second year.
Engineering departments that enroll
first-year students need to make special efforts to
retain them, as the largest loss occurs during the first
year. Athletics, clubs, informal socials, small first-year
seminars, eating meals with professors, and visiting
professors' homes should all be part of the freshman
experience. Encouraging students to participate in one
or two activities and providing them employment on campus
can also help keep them in the program.
Students who are academically engaged
are more likely to stay. Self-paced instruction, simulations,
inductive learning, group competitions, and active learning
methods that encourage participation are good activities.
Cooperative group learning and group competitions, such
as building a bridge or designing a paper airplane,
are particularly effective for underrepresented minorities
and women students. Allowing students to help decide
what to study in class or what format to use for a test
can also help make students more enthusiastic.
Clearly, not all students belong in
a discipline this academically rigorous. But by providing
extra attention, schools could keep those who have the
makings of good engineers from dropping out.
Phillip Wankat is head of interdisciplinary
engineering and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished
Professor of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University.
Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist
at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be
reached by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.