|By Phillip Wankat and Frank
year is crucial to keeping engineering
students in the program.
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
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'
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.