PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo NOVEMBER 2005 - VOLUME 15, NUMBER 3
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Starting With Square One
By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz

The first year is crucial to keeping engineering students in the program.Illustration by Michael Klein

IF ENGINEERING SCHOOLS want to retain students, they must start off on the right foot. Students who leave engineering programs typically do so engineering during or immediately after their first year, even though most of them are capable of completing the program.

These students are often naive about university requirements, and they typically don't have good study habits. Extensive orientation programs could help them sharpen their study skills and also make better course selections. Placement in appropriate courses during the first semester strongly affects retention. Students can become bored with "easy" classes and overwhelmed in tougher ones.

Classes that are too large also turn off students new to engineering. Students want to feel welcome and be treated as individuals, both of which are difficult to pull off in a class of 200. In general, big schools have greater attrition rates than small schools. Engineering schools should make sure that every student has the opportunity to take at least one small class where he or she can get to know the professor. First-year seminars offering wide-ranging topics have been successful at a number of schools.

Teaching methods based on active learning play a role in retention by increasing involvement. Unfortunately, large first-year classes encourage the extensive use of lectures-it's worth noting that retention increases when there are fewer lecture classes. Contrast these large lecture courses with hands-on courses, real-world experiences such as co-ops and undergraduate research. The trick is starting these programs during the students' first semester.

Engineering is known to have "gatekeeper" courses such as calculus and physics. Instead of using them to weed out students, we need to design these courses so that motivated students can master them. Greater retention more than pays for the additional cost that might arise from revamping courses.

The math skills of entering students, particularly in pre-calculus, require close monitoring because success in engineering hinges on them. Students who don't have high school calculus should be tested in college algebra and trig, and those who fail should be enrolled in a summer program. This would allow them to graduate on time.

Another step in the retention effort is developing courses that show the connections between subjects. Those courses increase retention by bringing relevance to the material for the students. Faculties should also rethink required first year courses and take advantage of recent ABET changes that grant schools more freedom in what has to be included. Tradition without relevance is not a sufficient reason for requirements.

Arguably, though, attitude is most important. Students can tell when professors care and when they really want them to succeed. Even a few professors trying to weed out students can cause the retention rate to head south.

Phillip Wankat is director of undergraduate degree programs in the department of engineering education and the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University. Frank Oreovicz is an education communications specialist at Purdue's chemical engineering school. They can be reached by e-mail at


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FIRST TO FILE - By Bethany Halford
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REFRACTIONS: Raising Grades - By Henry Petroski
HIGH-TECH TEXTBOOKS - E-books are on the rise in some classrooms, but the publishing industry is still working the kinks out. By Jo Ellen Myers Sharp
TEACHING: Starting With Square One - By Phillip Wankat and Frank Oreovicz
BOOK REVIEW: Power Play - By Robin Tatu
ON CAMPUS: Road to the Real World - By Lynne Shallcross
LAST WORD: Reflecting on Katrina - By Marybeth Lima


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