The Fundamentals of Engineering exam is a milestone in the education of professional engineers, measuring their mastery of key engineering concepts and competencies. Success in the eight-hour test, supervised by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), is an essential step toward obtaining a professional engineer’s license. It also makes students more attractive to employers — and thus able to command higher salaries.
Yet despite this exam’s importance and difficulty — only 73 percent pass nationwide — very few universities actively help students prepare for it. One of the exceptions is Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where students themselves play a leading role in the review process.
From their first Introduction to Engineering Design course in freshman year, all engineering students at Calvin are encouraged – and the message is reinforced – to take the FE exam in the fall of their senior year. They are taught about PE licensure, what it means to their careers and society, and the process to secure it, including the role and importance of the FE exam. Late in their junior year, students register for the exam on the NCEES website. They are instructed to learn the exam regulations, including which writing tools and calculators are approved. They must also secure a copy of the “FE Supplied-Reference Handbook” from the NCEES website.
Students are then advised to sign up for the FE review class, a five-week series of 10 one-hour modules. The content is left almost entirely up to the students. They choose and assign priorities in review topics and then pick the professors they want — from engineering, chemistry, physics, mathematics, business, or other departments — to teach each module. To date, no professor has declined; indeed, many consider it an honor to be chosen and rearrange their schedules to accommodate the review sessions. Professors are expected to cover the fundamentals of their topic, identify and discuss students’ common mistakes, answer questions, and help the class work on sample problems submitted by students.
Thermodynamics, always a top priority for students, is one of the earliest topics for review. The scope is physical properties, property laws (like the gas laws and equations of state), the four basic laws of thermodynamics, and applications with a strong emphasis on cycles and their analysis. Subsequent review sessions typically include materials, mathematics and statistics, statics and dynamics, chemistry, environmental engineering, control systems, and electrical systems.
Between taking the FE exam and getting their results, students are interviewed informally by the faculty about how they think they performed, how well prepared they were, and what should be changed, either in exam preparation or the engineering curriculum. When the results appear, the engineering department gets a breakdown from NCEES to analyze how well each module prepared the students.
When some students were shown to be weak on Statics and Dynamics, a course often taken in the first semester of the students’ second year, we made sure to cover this in the review. We also found that we were not clear and concise enough in teaching certain aspects of engineering ethics. When we adjusted the teaching, scores improved in this area.
Several more changes are under consideration, including recognition at graduation for students who pass the FE exam, designating their achievement on their diploma, and offering course credit for the FE exam review class. More controversial is the idea of making a student’s degree contingent on passing the FE exam.
Calvin College’s program has increased the proportion of graduates taking the FE exam from 35 percent to 55 percent and raised the FE exam pass rate from 90 percent to over 95 percent. We hope to do better still. As a Christian college with a liberal arts mission, Calvin recognizes that it has the burden of proving to prospective students and parents that it offers a rigorous, professional engineering program. Thanks to the preparation students receive for the FE exam, that burden is getting lighter.
J. Aubrey Sykes is a professor of chemical engineering at Calvin College.