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New findings point the way to better instruction.

Engineering design work demands a deep understanding of a client’s needs. So too, designs for engineering education require an understanding of our students — who they are, how they learn and how to reach them. Many instructors rely for this understanding on the insights they gain from working with students, both inside and outside the classroom. But a growing body of knowledge is becoming available from broader and more comprehensive studies of engineering students, offering educators a powerful and useful basis from which to devise instructional approaches that improve student learning.

A special issue of the Journal of Engineering Education (July 2008) is devoted to providing the results of this research to a wide audience of engineering educators. These 9 papers, involving a total of 31 authors, provide a range of findings about engineering students, telling us what attracts them to the field and why some succeed and others get discouraged. The papers also reflect on how these results can guide instructors.

Some of the findings run contrary to conventional wisdom. For instance, the widespread concern about retention of students in engineering may be misplaced. It turns out that engineering retains more matriculating students than any other major. In addition, students who matriculated in engineering were more likely to graduate from college than students in other majors. What distinguishes engineering is a low rate of students switching from other majors into engineering. The only major from which engineering attracts a noticeable fraction of students is computer science.

There are engineering schools, however, that have found innovative ways to defy this trend and attract a significant number of students who started their college studies in a non-engineering field. This finding implies that admissions policies, introductory engineering courses and the balance of technical and non-technical coursework may all affect how attractive (and accessible) engineering is to today’s students. Scholars have suggested ways that the culture of engineering might change to become more welcoming.

If retention is less of a problem than attracting students, researchers have nevertheless sought to understand why up to 40 percent of matriculating engineering students abandon the field for other majors. The frequently cited rigors of the required science courses are not the only reason. We now understand that the ease with which a student develops “an identity as an engineer” can have a significant influence. A study described how one student succeeded, despite discouraging early grades, after gaining practical experience by working at an engineering lab and having a faculty sponsor. The officially sanctioned route into engineering is not the only path. Nor is engineering knowledge acquired in just one way.

These research findings suggest that much more attention should be paid to features of university programs that help or hinder students in dealing successfully with the multiple dimensions that influence “becoming” engineers.

The influence of college faculty on students is complex and poorly understood. Instructors may have little to do with a student’s initial motivation to enter engineering, since many students — both men and women — make this choice for social and financial reasons. But faculty-student interaction is important in helping students develop confidence in their professional and interpersonal relationships and in their problem-solving skills. One thing that is known is that undergraduate involvement in faculty research both increases student-faculty interaction and is a key factor in a student’s educational development.

In the K-12 years, it is now clear, teachers can have a strong influence on students’ interest in engineering. Yet teachers are typically uncomfortable teaching subjects they do not understand well, and thus they will often shy away from such content. Despite this reluctance, studies of how children fare in design classes show them to be natural engineers and technologists, with an incredible adeptness and creative ability to conceive, construct, test and refine a product for a specific goal. More research is needed, therefore, into the kind of teacher preparation that is necessary for K-12 engineering instruction.


Sheri D. Sheppard is a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University; James W. Pellegrino is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Barbara M. Olds is associate vice president for educational innovation at the Colorado School of Mines.




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