High Dropout Rates Prompt Engineering Schools to Change Approach

Engineering Student_Purdue

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.”

Photo courtesy of Purdue

About Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus is a writer based in Boston and a contributor to newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, and the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine.
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7 Responses to High Dropout Rates Prompt Engineering Schools to Change Approach

  1. mike balentine says:

    Bored??? Sounds like the same ol’ same ol’ – tough classes with high mortality. Workshops, study groups, tutoring – this all sounds like helping students get through tough classes. Nothing new about that. Doing some ‘hands on’ is great to promote interest, but I want to drive across a bridge where the chief engineer could handle his basic physics & calculus.
    Losing some percentage to the ‘weeder classes’ isn’t all bad. I’d like to see data not just on the freshman to sophmore transition, but how many freshman actually graduate & what’s the average GPA. Creating a system that manages to graduate students who aren’t engaged by the challenges of classical physics & math unless you sugar coat it is questionable.
    No Engineer (ing student) left behind? Should we hand out blue stars??

    • Andrew says:

      Actually, its the polar opposite. The institutions have been sugar coating for a long time: it’s in their best interests because it means more loans going into their pocket and more feet through the door. Ultimately the fact that the kids dropout means they get paid for the full amount whilst only having to do half the work. I know, I’m a 2nd year kid in the UK facing the same dilemma right now. I KNOW that my degree won’t be worth a damn when I leave because I can feel how watered down and useless it is. Sure I have big essays and some of it is tough, but it’s not in the right subject matters I know I NEED to know in the industry and now that the rest of the roadmap’s out I can see we will never learn the all important questions burning inside of us all.

      Ultimately the promises that were made to us on entry were not fulfilled. I’m seriously considering dropping out just so I have SOME free time to actually learn what I know I need to know.

      And for the record, incase anyone want’s to think anything about my performance or sterotype me. I haven’t gone to a party since freshers, study everyday I’m not working, already have a few companies who’ve scouted me out and want me when I’m finished (only 4 people in my year can say that), got a first in 4 of my exams, and am currently sitting at a high 2:1 due to doing the bare minimum for a lot of irrelevant work that you could tell was used as filler.

  2. Bob says:

    Engineering (and most other STEM disciplines) is a series of fields that are defined by their quantitative solutions more so than the typical qualitative based fields. This is, I believe, the catch-22 of why students are both interested in the sciences and put off by it. STEM fields have, more or less, definitive solutions (I am biased as a mechanical engineer and realize that sceintific theories are not always so definitively contained). Therefore, it gives some a sense of accomplishment that a singular answer can be found, but it also pushes away those that feel it is too limited and can stifle the fun and creativity portion of the job.

    I do believe in one old school portion of this: STEM disciplines require a “weeding” cycle as, from the previous respondant’s concerns show, we need folks to make good bridges the first time around. Sometimes there is no room for error in these fields. We, as STEM leaders and veterens, have to stand up to the lax attitudes and “entitlement” phenomena that are becoming more prevelant in today’s youth. Quite frankly, in the real world, if you can’t work some long hours to get the job done right when push comes to shove…..tough crap. We should feel no guilt in assuring that the meek and talentless aren’t responsible for life critical decisions. Do you want to fly on an airplane with a wing designed by some kid who whined about having too many solid mechanics homework problems because it cut into his personal space time? Yeah, me neither.

    That being said, the author highlights that the PROCESS of how we maintain the interest needs a jumpstart. A first step for those of us out here are to get involved earlier: volunteer at local schools to teach kids about not just what science is, but what it does for us. The FIRST program for robotics is another wonderful place to start, allowing kids to see science in a hands on environment. As a personal opinion, some of the most affected entities can be the most influential: I’m talking about YOU, Mr. Major Corporations out there. Although some companies do a fine job investing in some institutions, it would likely be helpful to see more influence in areas where it counts.

    Provide projects to local educational institutions (high shcools and colleges, mostly) that can be interesting and fun. The possibilites are endless, and the pay off can be significant. Why not invest $20K in a project to allow 5 students who have not yet been ruined by industry to creatively try to find a different solution? Even if the solution is not very good, you have that money as a marketing investment, both with the schools and with the students. When those kids go to graduate, they will be looking at YOUR firm first, not 1000 others. It’s cheaper than an internship and a recruiter fee!

    Schools need to work more with their local businesses to help get students ready for the real world anyway. Too many fresh-outs have come to work for me with the tainted illusion of what engineering is. They have no clue about the MINDSET of working in the STEM fields. This is something that needs to be worked on drastically as well (ok, different topic).

    Summary: Weeding out is needed, but the process to keep kids interested can be improved through joint collaboration of investment from businesses with the educational institutions. And with volunteering by us in the fields at the lower levels of educations. Give them real world problems to tackle, and the results may surprise us all.

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  4. igotashoe says:

    Managed to make it through Engineering but it was tough. The reason that people drop out of Engineering has nothing to do with “boredom”, that’s the wrong conclusion. It’s tough work that requires focus, initiative, and extreme dedication during a time in our lives when most kids don’t possess any of those qualities. Don’t like studying 5-10 hrs per day on the weekdays and all weekend? Engineering is probably not for you. It doesn’t get any easier when you graduate and start working in the field either. My first Engineering class one cruel instruction said,”look at the person on either side of you, two of you won’t graduate”. That was depressing. As another professor used to say, “you can’t just be a fast horse in a fast race”.

  5. Elizabeth Campbell says:

    The drop out rate has not changed in more than 30 years since I have been an engineer. Kids drop out for many reasons. First, they are kids when they start. What 17 or 18yr old really knows exactly what they want to do when the grow up? You truely do not know what an engineer does until you have been an engineer. A 17 or 18yr old kid is not grown up, and truely no one knows what an engineer does until they get into the core engineering classes which start around the Junior year. Second, the true indicator of students that graduate is not obvious until after the sophomore year, when the students have faced and completed first two years of the hard core math, physics and chemistry courses. Using data from high school is not a perfect method of selecting those that will be able to complete the course worl. Third, the college selection process largely depends on your grades in high scool, and there are fewer spots. Colleges are afraid to loose students, as this is a new metric. Why not allow 40 percent or more into the engineering program to start with, and allow those not capable or interested weed themselves out, as was the process 30 years ago. Fourth, engineering professors may support, tutor and assist kids in the first two years, but come the tests they grade hard, according to what they know is necessary to complete the third and fourth year classes. A professor is not going to look at any performance past the peformance in her or his class when grading. Thus, kids that may have seemed most likely to accelerate in engineering at age 17 or 18, are not able to do to the course work. Many kids that seemed unlikely to accelerate at age 17 or 18, are able to go further and futher and further. Fifth, as said again, the admissions offices are now “graded” on retention rate of those selected or should I say, being able to select those students from high school most able to be able to extend their mathematical ability far beyond the scope of high school. It is not as easy as it seems, as no one has a crystal ball. The solution as it was 30 plus years ago when I went to General Motors Institue, where they cared not how many went into the program and cared not how many graduated (they allowed many in, and only wanted those able to perform as an engineer to graduate), is to allow at least 40 to 50% more kids at age 17 – 18yrs old into the program from the beginning. Grow the first 2 year course capacity, and allow the students to weed themselves out. That is how you graduate more brilliant engineers.

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