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An Untapped Talent Pool

We can lift barriers that keep undecided students out of engineering.

Restricted courses often make liberal arts the only option.Imagine posting “No Trespassing” signs on the campus gate. No college would institute such an absurd idea. Yet even as the nation desperately seeks more science, engineering, technology, and math (STEM) graduates, most of our schools embrace academic practices and policies that may keep students out of engineering without educators even realizing it. The dispossessed have a name: undeclared undergraduates. Our engineering programs should recognize and remove clear barriers to access.

Take academic advising. Many schools commonly “expose” undecided students to the broadest possible range of general education classes to help them choose a major, essentially making them de facto liberal arts students. If this tactic draws a student to engineering, it often is hard to sustain beyond the first year. That’s because most math and science classes a student takes while being exposed to different disciplines rarely count toward degrees in the STEM fields. Undecided students who, for example, get hooked on engineering by a great physics professor soon receive the bad news that they must repeat at least a semester’s worth of work because the course fulfilled only the requirements for a liberal arts, not an engineering, degree. Those students also will have missed at least the first engineering class in the core sequence, and thus start behind their peers. Is it any wonder some decide to ditch engineering?

A handful of conditions create the biggest handicaps for undecided students hoping to pursue engineering. They include the specialized, calculus-based versions of science courses that engineering majors typically must take and the widespread policy of restricting engineering classes to engineering majors. Fortunately, these problems have straightforward remedies. At most schools, for example, while general sciences and applied math courses don’t fulfill engineering requirements, calculus-based science and math classes for engineers do count toward general liberal arts and humanities requirements. Switch the liberal-arts default for undecided students, and advisers could steer potential engineers toward required math and science courses. Once launched on an engineering pathway, undecided students might more readily be persuaded to stay. Radically, why not start all qualified students — those doing college-level, not developmental, coursework — on the actual engineering track, letting them decide to transfer out of engineering rather than arduously negotiate the route in? Both students and engineering programs would benefit. Moreover, engineering educators could learn something about retention from the influx of nontraditional students, and explore new research topics as well.

Admittedly, the strategy depends on the willingness of departments to permit non-engineering majors into their classes and institutional flexibility in counting those courses toward any degree. Still, even tiny adjustments can increase the engineering ranks. For example, a growing number of schools allow Introduction to Engineering classes to count as a lab science for all students. As first-year classes, they theoretically are open to students without specialized math or science backgrounds — and freshmen of all interests now arrive having taken calculus. Why not welcome qualified undecided students to introductory engineering classes? With few high schools offering engineering, where else would students find out about us?

Precollege isn’t the only fertile arena for engineering recruitment. At my community college, all majors can take the introductory engineering class — and art majors are among our best designers. Through this class — and some intensive academic advising — we’ve successfully recruited students from general liberal arts, theater, renewable energy, and other majors to engineering. All have gone on to transfer to four-year engineering programs. Non-engineers particularly benefit from introductory classes that cover more than one type of engineering, are design based and hands-on, and aim to encourage a deep interest in the field. Opening up classes designed for engineering majors to non-STEM students also can help prime the engineering pipeline.

In short, we must keep all doors open for undecided students by pointing them toward non-terminal math and early engineering classes. Those who choose a different major will still benefit, emerging with science and math requirements completed and a higher degree of scientific literacy.

It is easier to get off the engineering path than on it. Let’s create advising practices and academic policies that let all students embark upon the journey.


Lisa McLoughlin is cochair of the engineering program at Greenfield Community College in Greenfield, Mass.




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