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LAST WORD - Opinion by John Robertson

It Doesn’t Add Up

High schools and universities must work together to narrow the preparation gap.

By Nicole Mendoza

Retaining incoming engineering students through graduation continues to be an important issue. Doing so benefits the lives and careers of young professionals, the strength of the American workforce, technology development and innovation, and national competitiveness and security.

There are many reasons students leave engineering as a first major, but in my experience, two resound clearly: the difficult social aspects of being a first-year engineer, including the lack of a support structure and a sense of not “being an engineer,” and the huge disparity among students in precollege math education. At many institutions, both problems affect students most prominently in the first two years. Data from my alma mater, Texas A&M, show that some 90 percent who leave engineering do so as freshmen or sophomores.

Universities across the nation are making impressive progress in addressing the social aspects. Support networks have been catalyzed by clustering classes by subject and major, and through group tutoring sessions, improved mentoring and advising, and engineering living-learning communities. To help students identify themselves as engineers, programs offer early hands-on design projects, undergraduate research, and discipline-specific team projects.

Many students leave engineering after stumbling in their first college math course.

Gaps in math education remain a problem, however, and one that I have witnessed in Texas. I graduated in 2003 from DeBakey High School for Health Professions, a magnet school in Houston. DeBakey offered a variety of pre-AP and AP courses, including Trigonometry, non-calculus-based Physics, Calculus AB (I) and BC (II), and Statistics. With these opportunities, I completed high school with Calculus I and II AP credits. Yet in my first year at college, I discovered that most of my peers had not taken Trigonometry and a few hadn’t taken Algebra II. That means that coming out of high school, these students experienced an up-to-four-year gap in math education, compared with students from DeBakey. This completely took me by surprise! I also discovered that other Texas high schools, particularly those in small rural towns, didn’t offer advanced math courses, much less AP or dual-credit versions.

Up until 2006, Texas required three years of math credits and mandated only Algebra I and Geometry for high school graduation. Since then, the state government has increased the level of math required for a high school diploma to four years, with Algebra II prescribed for students entering high school in the 2007-2008 school year. This still-low requirement ensures that many students enter college engineering with inadequate preparation.

The Texas “Top 10 Percent Rule” – guaranteeing admission to state institutions to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class – only exacerbates the problem. This rule was implemented to encourage equal access to higher education. It evaluates all students – whether from small rural, large city, or magnet high schools – based on rank. This results in students with different levels of math education being placed in the same pool. At Texas A&M, first-year calculus-based physics courses require Calculus I and II as corequisites. This combination flummoxed the majority of my peers in 2003, directly resulting in lower grades or having to repeat one or both subjects. It also lowered morale, delayed graduation, and encouraged them to switch majors. At Texas A&M, the grade students earn in their first math course is a significant indicator of whether they will continue to study engineering.

Time and again I watched friends struggle through repeat math courses and then abandon engineering in despair. Even professors in upper-level courses had to walk students through basic math concepts before addressing the course material. Together with the Department of Mathematics (DoM), the College of Engineering has taken steps to mitigate the problem: Incoming freshmen must now take a math placement exam, and the DoM offers online math prep the summer prior to the freshman year, as well as help sessions and recitations. But is it enough?

My goal is not to cast blame on high schools, but instead to increase awareness of the significant disparities that exist in math preparation for prospective engineering students. A huge gap exists, one that high schools and universities must work together to bridge.


Nicole Mendoza is a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant in aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University. This past summer she participated in the National Science Foundation Engineering Innovation Fellowship Program, interning at Boeing.

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