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American Society for Engineering EducationMARCH 2007Volume 16 | Number 7 PRISM HOMETABLE OF CONTENTSBACK ISSUES

REFRACTIONS: Weighing the Differences - BY HENRY PETROSKI
LAST WORD: Retaining Students—and Their Hopes and Dreams - BY NARIMAN FARVARDIN

A RENAISSANCE ENGINEER - Integrated engineering trains students in a wide range of fundamentals, making them particularly attractive to small- and medium-sized companies. - BY BARBARA MATHIAS RIEGEL
ON CAMPUS: Earning Your Education - BY LYNNE K. SHALLCROSS


LAST WORD: Retaining Students—and Their Hopes and Dreams - BY NARIMAN FARVARDIN  

Educating Engineering Students is a long and expensive process. There are steps we can take to ensure more students make it through.

A term like “retention rate” may seem cold when you consider the students—and the hopes and dreams—it represents. However, unless we pay attention to such terms, we may fail our students and our field.

In my experience there are three ways to ensure that the time and money we invest in engineering education pay off and that we produce well-trained engineers who may indeed realize their dreams:

  1. Recruit students more likely to thrive in the challenging engineering school environment.

  2. Make engineering come alive from the first day of class, with high-quality, innovative courses, in state-of-the-art facilities, taught by faculty members who care.

  3. Create a complete academic experience that offers students exciting opportunities, useful guidance and a sense of community.

At the Clark School from 1999 to 2006, we have seen these approaches lead to the following improvements in our retention rates:

Clark School of Engineering Retention
(includes only students retained in engineering)

Period Fall ’99 Fall ’06
One-Year 73.6% 81.9%
Two-Year 54.8% 68.3%
Three-Year 46.4% 63.7%

Recruiting “Thrivers”

The idea that engineering is a way to improve the world is very powerful. We try to communicate this mission to prospective students, so they can commit to facing the challenges ahead.Start by building an audience for your program. We partner with near and distant feeder high schools, using Clark School student ambassadors to promote engineering as an academic path and career. We offer summer programs to show high school math and science teachers how to incorporate engineering concepts into their courses.

The idea that engineering is a way to improve the world is very powerful. We try to communicate this mission to prospective students (and their parents and other advisers), so they can commit to facing the challenges ahead.

It’s vital to back up recruitment with scholarships. The recent $30 million A. James Clark Scholarship Endowment for Undergraduates has enabled more students to enter our program, and by reducing their need for employment, it keeps them more focused on their studies and more likely to connect emotionally with the school.

For some students, engineering is just not a good fit. That’s why even at a public institution committed to access for as many students as possible, we strive to maintain the highest admissions standards. (Our incoming freshmen 25% and 75% SATs have gone from 1200 and 1370 in fall ’99 to 1280 and 1420 in ’06.) Rather than admit a student who will struggle unsuccessfully, we direct that student to another area in which he or she can struggle and succeed.

No Indifferent Teachers

Create incentives for your most gifted and passionate teachers to present your most fundamental courses, and provide first-rate assistants to help run lab activities and manage the classes. This year we have launched the Keystone program (supported by corporate partners and individual donors) for this purpose; we are working to extend Keystone to all of our first- and second-year courses.

Renovate your workshops and computer classrooms. Students will feel their hard work is significant to the school, and parents will feel that their children are in good hands. When prospective students and their parents visit our new Jeong H. Kim Engineering Building, we see an immediate positive response.

Likewise, the more your dean and department chairs participate in the educational process, the more your younger students will feel important. Consider an introductory course taught by the dean—ours is called “Dialogue With the Dean”—that instills the “world-changing” mission and presents exciting technologies and career opportunities.

The Total Package

A resource-rich academic environment, beyond engineering classrooms and labs, is important for students’ intellectual growth, career preparation and motivation.

Like many schools, we have developed highly effective internship and co-op programs to open paths to future employment for our students. In advising we place freshmen, who are often unsure of their majors, in our school-based advising program, while higher-level students work with their departments. We continually develop community-building activities—picnics, dinners with the dean—at school, department and student organization levels.

We have also created specialty programs that give students important opportunities, such as the Hinman Campus Entrepreneurship Opportunities (CEOs) living-learning entrepreneurship program and the Inventis leadership program.

More remains to be done. We are now planning initiatives to support all students in developing written and oral communication skills and to engage freshmen in a unifying service activity. Through such efforts we increase the likelihood that the students we work so hard to attract and enroll will experience an exceptional educational program, successfully complete it and find satisfaction in bettering our world.

The writer is professor and dean of the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland in College Park. The writer wishes to express his gratitude to Mr. James McMenamin, assistant dean for communications, for his help in preparing this article.




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American Society for Engineering Education