PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo MARCH 2006 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 7
last word
The Terrible Two’s
By Clive L. Dym

The first years in engineering are critical in terms of retention.

We appear to be in another period of soul-searching and agonizing about how to deal with engineering enrollments. The percentage of college graduates majoring in engineering has declined steadily over the years. The realization that many engineering tasks are being farmed out to China and India, both of which have dramatically larger numbers of engineering graduates, has served to heighten concern about retention. Dropping out occurs most often in the first two years, and several ideas have been proposed on how to keep students in engineering. Purdue professors Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz have suggested that introductory physics and mathematics courses be redesigned from “gatekeeper” courses into motivating courses. But it is not clear that the idea addresses one of the major problems—that during the first two years students do not come in contact with enough engineering content or engineering faculty.

The first two years are devoted largely to the basic sciences, which in turn serve as the foundation for the last two years of applying scientific principles to technological problems. This structure was developed in part as a response to industry because graduating engineers were perceived to be unable to practice in industry as a result of the wholesale swap of an emphasis on the practical for the post-Sputnik focus on the theoretical. The infusion of first-year design courses in the late 1980s and early 1990s was motivated by an awareness of the curriculum disconnect between first-year students and engineering faculty members. First-year project and design courses emerged so that students could be exposed to what engineers actually do, while learning basic elements of the design process by doing real projects.

Design projects have been used to motivate and integrate learning. Cornerstone project-based courses also help with students’ motivation and retention by introducing engineering content and experience early on and by putting first-year students into direct contact with faculty.

These cornerstone courses are similar to many capstone courses, but they differ in their tendency to focus more on conceptual design and less on discipline-specific artifacts. That’s partially because there are now textbooks for such courses but also because first-year students can do reasonable conceptual design without the detailed technical knowledge they acquire later on. In fact, there is hard evidence that first-year cornerstone courses both enhance interest in engineering and improve student retention. Similar results have come from integrated curricula that allow students “to discover and explore important connections among the humanities, physical and social sciences, and engineering subjects in their first year.” Efforts by senior engineering faculty members to mentor and build a sense of community with first-year students have also increased retention measurably.

Other questions might be asked in the pursuit of increasing engineering faculty involvement in the first two years: Does the present rigid serial structure of physics and mathematics courses need to be maintained? Can these courses be restructured into engineering contexts and taught by engineering faculty? The current structure includes a lot of reinforcement, but does it not also include a lot of repetition? Finally, and more generally, can the current rigid organization be “broken” and restructured anew?

Clive L. Dym is the Fletcher Jones Professor of Engineering Design at Harvey Mudd College.


TO THE RESCUE - By Anna Mulrine
ON THE MOVE - By Thomas K. Grose
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REFRACTIONS: Being Mistaken - By Henry Petroski
A GOOD FIT - Co-op education, which celebrates its 100th anniversary, has become an increasingly important learning tool. - By Barbara Mathias-Riegel
ON CAMPUS: A Different World - By Lynne Shallcross
BOOK REVIEW: Merging Arts and Science - By Robin Tatu
TEACHING: A Nation of Techies - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
LAST WORD: The Terrible Two's - By Clive L. Dym


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