Encouraging engineers

Photo: Engineering 120 has been revamped to include more hands-on projects in hopes of retaining more engineering majors. (Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services).

Freshmen engineering students are of increasing interest to leaders in academia and government nationwide. From the governor’s mansion to industry boardrooms to government think tanks, 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 universities nationwide, though, more than half of the students who start freshmen engineering 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 (CEA), “is to remove as many institutional impediments as we can.’’

Improving the introduction
CEA, with university support, is working to see how it can keep more students in engineering while maintaining it high standards. The introductory engineering class is particularly important, says Olsen, because it’s the students’ first exposure 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. The intent is to capture and solidify their interest.

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

Uma Jayaram, another senior faculty member who is teaching the class, says this year’s syllabus is very organized, there is more student interaction with faculty and there are more hands-on projects. Students are required to attend an academic fair where they can meet 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,’’ says Jayaram.

Other retention efforts
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 by:

• Establishing 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.

• Insuring a better understanding of concepts in sophomore-level engineering classes. Faculty members Shane Brown and Kip Findley are working with others in their departments to come up with new ways of teaching engineering concepts that will help students develop a better and deeper understanding.

• Revamping introductory computer science classes, adding student mentors and adding a class for students who may not have experience in computer programming. Freshmen engineering students are of increasing interest to leaders in academia and government nationwide. , assistant professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is developing a studio-based approach to teaching computer algorithms. He is 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,’’ says Olsen. “We are really concerned about the students who are unnecessarily discouraged from pursuing an engineering degree. We want to encourage each one of them to pursue and accomplish their goals.”

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