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Keeping Students in Engineering

As they enter their freshmen engineering class, the students look about the same as in past years. They saunter into the room wearing the signature baseball cap and jeans. They slump behind a desk.

They may have heard about engineering from a relative or liked their high school math and science classes.  Many of them might not know exactly what engineering entails.

This group of freshmen engineering students is of increasing interest to leaders in academia and government. From the Governor’s mansion to industry boardrooms to government think tanks, these leaders are repeating the refrain: To remain economically competitive, we need more and better prepared engineers who will take on challenging 21st century problems in energy, the environment, and computer and biotechnologies.  

At WSU and at universities nationwide, though, more than half of the students who start this class will not go on to finish an engineering degree.

“The key,” says Bob Olsen, associate dean of undergraduate and student services for the College of Engineering and Architecture, “is to remove as many institutional impediments as we can.’’

Working to tackle the problem, the College of Engineering and Architecture with university support is working to keep more students in engineering. The introductory engineering class is particularly important, says Olsen, because it’s the students’ first introduction to the field and it’s one of the few engineering classes the students will take in their first two years of college – when most of them leave the degree program.

In keeping with recommendations from a recent university-wide report by Robert E. Shoenberg, the introductory Engineering 120 class size, at 36 students, is now much smaller than in past years and is taught by senior faculty members. Among those teaching are Anjan Bose, former dean of the College and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, Bob Olsen, who is a Fellow of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers and associate dean, and Dave McLean, chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Uma Jayaram, another senior faculty member who is teaching the introductory class, says that this year’s group of introductory engineering classes is more organized and thoughtful than in years past. Students have more opportunity for interaction with faculty who are leaders in the engineering field. At the same time, students are given a more hands-on understanding of the engineering fields. The class has a solid structure, with well thought out projects. In each of the experiments, students have a real opportunity to learn basic engineering concepts. And, students are required to attend an academic fair, in which they had the opportunity to meet with people in the engineering industry as well as learn about successful engineering student clubs on campus.

“The students are going to pick up on these efforts,’’ said Jayaram.

In addition to the changes in Engineering 120, the college, with support from the Office of Undergraduate Education, is making several efforts to increase student retention in the first two years.

  • The College of Engineering and Architecture has established a “living-learning’’ community for freshmen interested in engineering. Living-learning communities, in which students room with those with similar academic interests, have been shown to increase student retention by increasing student social capital, or student networks with engineering students and faculty.
  • Better understanding of concepts in sophomore-level engineering classes. Faculty members Shane Brown and Kip Findley are working with faculty members in their departments to come up with new ways of teaching engineering concepts that will help students develop a better and deeper understanding of these concepts.
  • Revamping introductory computer science classes, adding student mentors, and adding an additional class for students who may not have experience in computer programming. Chris Hundhausen, assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is developing a studio-based approach to teaching computer algorithms, borrowing teaching methods from architecture in hopes of making students more successful.

“To remain competitive globally, we need to maintain a strong contingent of well-educated engineers,’’ said Olsen. “We are really concerned about the students who are unnecessarily discouraged from pursuing an engineering degree at the university, and we want to do what we can to make sure we encourage each one of them to pursue and accomplish their goals.’’

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