Engineering schools that tie theory and practice together retain more students


Many at Olin College believe that innovative teaching is more than just replacing traditional lectures with hands-on projects. Rather, it is "about the method of presentation," reads a chart in a corridor in Olin's Academic Center.

Engineering students can sometimes be miserable human beings. I know -- I was one of them.

It goes like this: You start engineering school all excited to get your hands on some real engineering stuff ... only to be drowned in theory-heavy lecture after lecture after lecture. Not that there's anything wrong with calculus, linear algebra, electromagnetism -- those are beautiful things, no doubt. But the question is: Why should heavy loads of abstraction precede the more practical, hands-on work?

Why stick with such "boot-camp model of engineering education," as William A. Wulf, president of the National Academy of Engineering, in Washington, D.C., defined it when I interviewed him about a year ago. Wulf and other experts have been arguing for quite some time now that this model should be profoundly revised. I couldn't agree more. In fact, I'd say it should be more than revised -- it should be exterminated.


For one thing, it's not working. Enrollment in engineering programs has been stagnant for the past five years. To make things worse, dropout rates are huge. There are many reasons why students drop out. Some decide engineering is not their thing; others have to leave to get jobs to support their families; and so on. But those reasons also affect biological sciences and other non-engineering programs. So why are engineering students leaving? Is it because courses are too difficult? The answer is no. The main reason is that the engineering curricula are bad: they fail to motivate students.

In a paper titled "Engineering Education Research Aids Instruction" in the 31 August 2007 issue of Science, Norman L. Fortenberry, of the Center for the Advancement of Scholarship on Engineering Education at the National Academy of Engineering, in Washington, D.C., and colleagues report that on average about 56 percent of engineering undergraduates complete their programs. In some schools, such retention rates can be as low as 30 percent -- in other words, two in every three students who begin an engineering program won't get their diplomas. About the roots of the problem the paper says:

Low rates of student retention within the discipline have heightened concerns in the engineering community about the structure, content, and delivery of engineering education. . . . Academic difficulty is not why these students change course, leading the engineering education community to view these loss rates as indicators of defects within the system of engineering education that should be corrected.

So again, students leave not because courses are too difficult (and we're not saying they are not difficult), but because of "defects within the system of engineering education."

But there are good news. Fortenberry and coauthors report that more engineering schools are putting efforts to improve their programs by establishing departments of engineering education, such as those as Purdue University, Virginia Tech, and Clemson University, and by creating experimental courses in which new education methods can be explored.

One such experiment is the First-Year Engineering Projects (FYEP) course at the University of Colorado at Boulder. This course, designed to retain more students, places more emphasis in combining theory and practice in collaborative project-based learning settings. Here's a description from the paper:

The FYEP course connects the conceptual and educational side of engineering with professional practice. This is primarily accomplished through a 13-week project that introduces first-year students to the design-build-test cycle of product prototype development (wherein a new object to meet a stated or perceived customer need is conceived, designed, realized as a physical object, and tested to verify that it meets requirements) in a team-based setting, supported by experimental testing. The innovations at the University of Colorado at Boulder are consistent with the results of previous science and engineering education research on experiential, interactive, and collaborative learning.

The results?

The course boosted retention in the engineering programs to 64 percent. I quote from the paper:

These results add to the growing body of evidence demonstrating that first-year projects-based curricula promote retention of engineering students . . . Although a 64% retention rate is still too low for students that are heavily screened before admission to the major, it represents an improvement on the national engineering retention rate of 56%.

I was able to observe firsthand the impact of combining theory and practice in the classroom, not at the University of Colorado-Boulder, but at another, small engineering college: Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering.

Olin is a phenomenal success story on how to replace the boot camp model with the perfect balance of theory and practice -- and by doing that making engineering students happy. Sure, not all are happy, but the level of happiness there appeared to me to be pretty high compared to other places. I wished my engineering school were like that!

Olin's successful approach to education can be seen in its ultralow dropout rate -- less than 5 percent was what I heard when I talked to Olin officials last year. (Olin is a tiny college and the small number of students, and the fact that all receive full scholarships, can distort statistics.)

About Olin, most experts agree the "experiment is still running," so more results are needed if other schools are to adopt its model. But to me Olin is the best way to understand what's right and what's wrong in engineering education. Who's not getting it? The lesson is obvious. The students who graduate are the happy ones.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.