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July 5, 2007

Engineering overdrive: Undergrads in field overworked, not informed about their major, study finds

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Engineering undergraduates begin college with little idea of what it means to be an engineer, and they often don’t find out until their third year. Some students justify their heavy workload with a “meritocracy of difficulty” that equates hard work in school with material reward down the road. And findings show that male and female engineering students approach technical questions differently.

All the above findings are drawn from an ongoing study of engineering undergraduate students. Researchers recruited 40 incoming engineers at each of the UW, Stanford University, Howard University and Colorado School of Mines campuses. From fall of 2003 until spring of 2007 the researchers interviewed the students, tracked their academic careers and issued a series of tests and questionnaires. What they got was one of the richest datasets of engineering education in the United States. The project is known as the Academic Pathways Study, led by Sheri Sheppard, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. The study is the major project of the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education, a five-university research group funded by the National Science Foundation.

The largest announcement of study results to date was made in June at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education. Fifteen UW researchers, including members of the College of Engineering and the College of Education, presented results that uncovered issues in engineering education and then offered possible solutions.

“There’s been a conversation happening at the national level about competitiveness, and that’s one reason to focus on good engineering education,” said Cynthia Atman, director of the UW’s Center for Engineering Learning and Teaching ( Engineering schools face declining enrollment in undergraduate programs and what Atman describes as “retention challenges.” Nationally, about 40 percent of freshman engineers leave the program by their senior year. (Class sizes stay relatively constant at the UW because vacated spots are often taken by students transferring from community colleges.)

Part of the reason for the high drop-out rates might be that the typical first- or second-year student knows little about what it means to work as an engineer, researchers found. Many students chose the field because they were good at math, because their parents wanted them to study engineering, because they wanted to contribute to society, or because they thought they could get a high-paying job. Two years of undergraduate study often provided few tangible experiences of life as an engineer.

“We know that it’s an exciting and dynamic field,” Atman said. “But our students don’t get that excitement.” The researchers suggested that more hands-on team projects in the freshman and sophomore years might give students a better feel for the profession and a reason to complete their degrees. “Students are leaving engineering before they’re finding out what engineering is all about,” Atman said.

Another UW research group uncovered what members describe as a “meritocracy of difficulty” in engineering. When asked about their education, the adjective students used most often was “hard,” reported Reed Stevens, associate professor in the College of Education. Engineering students saw themselves as superior to other students because they spent long hours studying to the exclusion of other activities. The students said they persevered despite heavy workloads in order to afford a comfortable lifestyle after graduation.

“We need to be giving students more than just financial reasons to stay in their programs,” Stevens said. Instructors might consider how to “weed out” unnecessary courses, he suggested, rather than value a heavy workload for its own sake.

Yet another team found a difference in the way male and female students approached technical tasks. Deborah Kilgore, research scientist in the College of Engineering, asked freshman students to plan two mock engineering projects. When considering the design of a retaining wall to contain flooding on the Mississippi River, the women thought more about the project’s effect on the surrounding environment and the people living nearby. And when designing a children’s playground, female students again tended to think more about context, considering who lived in the neighborhood and whether the playground would be accessible to handicapped children.

The engineering profession wants to recruit people who consider social and environmental factors, Kilgore said, but it has a hard time attracting women. “This may be a place that we can target our communications,” she said. “Tell students: We do want you to be contextual, we do want you to be engaged.”

The Academic Pathways Study is one of the few such studies with the luxury of long-term funding, Atman said. This allows the researchers to compare campuses and track changes over the years — to see whether female students who include contextual information are more likely to leave, for example, or whether students who do a hands-on project in their freshman year are more likely to stay.

Most of the existing publications use data from the first two years of the study. The researchers will now begin to analyze data from the later years.

“We are providing more insights into the challenges that exist for engineering students,” Atman said, “and more people are beginning to understand that these problems are important, and that we need to do something about them.”

More information on the study is posted online <