Flocks of freshmen are unpacking their bags and lining up at engineering schools this fall, fresh-faced and enthusiastic. They’ll find their way around their campuses and engineering buildings, receive pep talks from administrators, and settle into classes in the basic skills of calculus and physics.
And by the end of the academic year, four in 10 will have dropped out.
After decades of trying to increase the number of students who enroll in engineering, educators are recognizing that the real problem may be keeping them there.
“If you don’t retain them, it doesn’t matter how interested they were at the beginning,” says Norman Fortenberry, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE), which has launched a new initiative to address this and is conducting a survey on student attrition funded by the Sloan Foundation.
It’s an urgent question. With more jobs requiring technical skills, only 14 percent of undergraduates in the United States are studying science, technology, engineering, or mathematics, compared to 23 percent of students in the other G-7 nations and 39 percent in China. Half of American employers say they’re having trouble finding qualified workers in technical fields. And while the total number of people graduating from college in the U.S. has increased nearly 50 percent in the last 20 years, the annual output of engineering graduates has remained firmly stuck at about 120,000.
Sixty percent of freshmen engineering majors drop out or change majors, a problem compounded by the fact that engineering is easy to leave, but almost impossible to transfer into. “We don’t have the transfers,” Fortenberry says. “Engineering is a very crowded, almost lockstep curriculum, so it’s much harder to transfer in than transfer out.”
A virtual industry has cropped up to figure out why students quit, but most of the many studies on this topic come to one incontrovertible conclusion: They’re bored.
“A primary reason for the attrition of students from engineering is their perception of a learning environment that fails to motivate them and is unwelcoming,” reported the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. More would likely stick around, the ASEE agrees, if engineering programs were “perceived by students to be personally rewarding, socially relevant, and designed to help them succeed.”
That’s the idea behind new programs starting up at some engineering schools. At the University of Colorado-Boulder, 300 freshmen engineering majors live together in dorms where the university offers free drop-in tutoring every weeknight, calculus work groups, and even late-night breakfasts before midterms. Eighty-six percent return for their sophomore years, versus 78 percent of freshmen who live elsewhere. At Washington University in St. Louis, students can get up to fours hours a week of free one-on-one tutoring, or math counseling at a Calculus Help Room.
Perhaps the most dramatic effort to keep engineering students from dropping out or switching majors is at Purdue, where the new $53.2 Neil Armstrong Hall—named for the Purdue alumnus who was the first man to walk on the moon—surrounds an atrium with depictions of other such Purdue-related engineering feats like the Golden Gate Bridge and Hoover Dam. Rather than rows of seats in front of a whiteboard, the classrooms are designed to encourage teamwork and look like real-world labs. Instead of watching a professor lecture, students cluster tables together, work on tablet PCs, write on white paper on the walls, and use 3-D printers to design and print mockups.
“It’s all about learning to learn—how to keep current and out there on the cutting edge, and how to begin to think like engineers,” says Teri Reed-Rhoads, assistant dean for undergraduate education. “There are two ways to do that: by either getting them out of the classroom or by making the classroom look more like a workspace.”
At Purdue, 87 percent of engineering freshmen return for their sophomore year. Now the university is working on sophomores, for whom the curriculum moves on to such challenging topics as thermodynamics and electrical circuits. “These are things we’ve always taught, but we’ve never necessarily connected them to the real world, where people could say, I’ve seen that, or I can understand where that need is,” Reed-Rhoads says. Now students are encouraged to consider how to help create a prosthetic with a wider range of motion, or the pressure exerted on different parts of a roller-coaster rider. “Some people call these everyday examples, what students can experience every day, but the idea is to consider the engineering behind them,” Reed-Rhoads says.
That’s the kind of thing that can help reconcile the problem created by years of trying to get high-school students enthusiastic about technology and engineering—then dumping them into boot-camp-style engineering courses in theoretical math and science.
“We get these kids all excited in high school and middle school, telling them that they get to design stuff and build stuff, and then they get to college and we tell them, well, you have to wait two years to do that,” Fortenberry says. “Unless we change what happens on campus, they’re going to keep getting disillusioned—and keep leaving.”