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Enter the Millennials

By David M. Woodall

In two recent books, Generations and Millennials Go to College, co-authors Neil Howe and William Strauss examine the generation of students now entering our colleges and universities. Generation X students of the 80s and 90s are being replaced by a new group called the Millennials, a name that refers to those born after 1981 and graduating from high school in the new millennium. Population studies have established that Millennials have characteristics quite different from gen X-ers. I encourage you to pick up these books, especially the latter, as it looks at the impact of the Millennials on higher education.

A challenge for engineering educators is the engagement of students in campus research activities. This is not usually an issue for graduate students since they often have research requirements for completion of their degrees. For undergraduate students, however, research is often encouraged but seldom required.

We tend to think that laboratory research enriches the undergraduate course of study. It is definitely beneficial for those bound for graduate school but can also be a broadening experience for students going into professional practice. There has been substantial effort in the past to increase the number of research experiences for undergraduates. The National Science Foundation has a program, Research Experiences for Undergraduates, to enhance funded research projects by adding resources for undergraduate involvement.

How do the Millennials differ from the previous generation that has populated our campuses for the past 20 years? And what will their entry into college mean for research? The Millennial group is much larger than gen X-ers or baby boomers. In fact, with 100 million members, the group is the largest in the nation’s history and also the most racially and ethnically diverse. The peak year for graduation from high school for the Millennials is 2008.

Howe and Strauss identify seven core traits of the Millennials. They are special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving. Millennials are more trusting of large institutions and more willing than previous generations to acknowledge the importance of their own actions. Their parents are very protective and expect to be actively involved in their children’s university education.

Millennials are confident they can make a contribution to society, and they will look for balance in their lives and careers. They recognize the net benefit of teamwork and believe earlier generations placed too much reliance on individualism. They favor the teaching of values in school and believe in honesty, patriotism, and democracy. They often have detailed plans for their own future, tend to like math and science, and enjoy spending time on projects with their friends.

The Millennials have a number of traits that will make them strong participants in research, including the value they place on teamwork and accomplishment and self-confidence. The question is how to get these students engaged in our research.

I recommend that you approach this task by highlighting the research team and its work in a number of ways:

  • Identify the societal value of the work of your team and its potential impact for the betterment of humanity
  • Be open and candid with them about the opportunities and challenges of the research
  • Emphasize the opportunity to be a member of a strong team effort, with all members of the team critical to team success
  • Discuss the ability to communicate the findings publicly and to publish the results of the work in the open, peer-reviewed literature
  • Focus on the breadth of disciplines engaged in this and related work and the opportunity for the research team to mirror society by including multiple views and interests.

The challenge is to get Millennials into research laboratories. The benefit of engaging them will include building strong research teams with confident individuals who understand the value of their work and the impact of the team’s efforts on their community. It will be well worth the effort.


David M. Woodall is provost and vice president for
academic affairs at Oregon Institute of Technology.


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