The Impact of a Discipline-Based Introduction to Engineering Course on Improving Retention

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The Impact of a Discipline-Based
Introduction to Engineering Course on
Improving Retention
MARC HOIT                                                                   Many success-based introduction to engineering courses are based
Department of Civil Engineering                                             on the Landismodel;4 they have been implemented with a summer
University of Florida                                                       residential component,5 as one- or two-credit courses,6 and as a
                                                                            three-credit, two-course sequence.7
MATTHEW OHLAND                                                                  Milano et al.8 describe how limiting the focus of an introductory
Department of Chemical Engineering                                          course to a subset of engineering disciplines (usually mechanical,
University of Florida                                                       electrical, and either manufacturing or industrial) enabled the in-
                                                                            structors to devote more time to each design effort. Dini et al.,9 Mc-
                                                                            Donald,10 and Rizkalla et al.11 used a similar approach, but also in-
                             ABSTRACT                                       cluded some aspects of the success-based courses described earlier.
                                                                            In-depth interdisciplinary projects have also been used to give
An Introduction to Engineering course at the University of Flori-           greater insight to the design process.12-16
da was converted from a lecture-based offering to a laboratory for-             Still other implementations of an introductory engineering
mat in a project sponsored by the Southeastern University and               course use an approach which is designed to foster creative thinking
College Coalition for Engineering Education (SUCCEED)                       in the manner of Lumsdaine and Lumsdaine.17 McDonough and
(NSF Cooperative Agreement No. EID-9109853). The revised                    Harding18 and Nelson et al.19 have used these methods in prepara-
course rotates student groups through laboratories in each of the           tion completing an interdisciplinary design project.
undergraduate engineering disciplines. Majors and non-majors                    A very intensive introductory experience is described by
receive a grade for this one credit course which meets three hours          Morris20—a two semester course of three credits per semester at the
per week. The laboratories employ active learning and a smaller             University of Virginia covers creativity and other conceptual topics,
class size to achieve two objectives: 1) to better inform students          skill-based components, case studies, and multiple design projects.
about the nature of engineering and its specific disciplines and 2) to
improve the retention of these students in engineering. The
achievement of the first objective has been shown in our earlier                   II. METHOD OF COURSE IMPLEMENTATION
work.1, 2 This paper focuses on the achievement of the latter objec-
tive, which is shown by a longitudinal study to be dramatically im-             The Introduction to Engineering course at the University of Florida
proved. The magnitude (a 17% improvement in retention for the               prior to 1993 was a lecture-based pass/fail class of the type which
general population and greater for women and minorities) is sur-            has been characterized as “Sleep 101” by Ercolano,21 poking fun at
prising for a single course, but reasons are suggested which might          the large numbers of students who sleep during such classes. The
explain such a large effect.                                                revitalization of this course was funded by the NSF-sponsored
                                                                            SUCCEED Engineering Education Coalition. The revised course
                                                                            is open to majors and non-majors, but the course is not counted as
                        I. INTRODUCTION                                     part of the engineering curriculum.
                                                                                One of the specific goals of the SUCCEED coalition has been
    In 1990, the ASEE Engineering Deans Council Pipeline Im-                to increase enrollment and retention especially among minorities
plementation Committee identified specific tasks and objectives for         and women. In order to achieve these goals, it was proposed to in-
engineering education.3 Among the four tasks that the Committee             fuse design into the early years of engineering education, expand
considered particularly important was a charge to “develop or ex-           undergraduate laboratory experiences, and promote engineering in
pand. . .first-year entry programs [that] should introduce students . . .   the public school system. The laboratories designed for the revised
to the spectrum of opportunities in engineering and provide them            Introduction to Engineering course, described below, employ all
with engineering experiences.” One of the responses to this charge          these tactics—the public school system applicability is achieved by
has been the widespread introduction and revision of “Introduction          keeping the laboratories simple and inexpensive.
to Engineering” courses and those of similar names and purposes.                The resulting laboratory-based course provides a hands-on ex-
    A wide range of objectives, credit hours, and approaches charac-        perience of the engineering function, introduces students to team-
terize these introductory courses. One approach focuses on devel-           work in engineering and allows an early opportunity to develop
oping the success skills of students with the objective of improving        communication skills. This format is intended to tap the benefit of
retention in engineering programs. Success skills programs intro-           “experiential learning” as described by Kolb22 which is widely recog-
duce students to various resources, habits, and equipment that will         nized in engineering education.23-25
improve their chances of succeeding in an engineering program.                  The traditional University of Florida lecture course format has

January 1998                                                                                             Journal of Engineering Education 79
been a one credit, one hour, pass/no pass format. About 180 stu-            first meeting. Subsequent cohorts were self-selected, i.e., students
dents met weekly to hear a representative from each engineering             were informed of both sections during the college’s orientation and
discipline lecture about the representative’s field of engineering.         could choose either the lecture or the laboratory section. The impli-
The pass/no-pass grading is based on attendance only. Large num-            cations of this selection process for the interpretation of our results
bers of students sleep, talk, or read the paper and receive no benefit      is discussed in the Results and Discussion section.
from the lecture class. We felt that retaining the departmental                 Enrollment figures for the lecture and laboratory during the
structure of the course was important. Even though engineering is           evaluation period are shown in Table 1. These three cohorts have
becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, the academic structure is          been studied longitudinally.
still organized into departments, each with its own character. De-              Class sizes have grown since the institutionalization of the re-
veloping a relationship with a department in the freshman year is           vised course and can now accommodate 14 groups of 20 students
considered to hold promise for contributing to the retention of stu-        each. In order to have a high level of interaction with the professors
dents.                                                                      and the other students, and in order to be able to manage the same
    The majority of the freshman introductory experiences dis-              level of student activity, an upper limit of 20 students per group has
cussed earlier are assigned three credits. At the University of Florida,    been set. To serve as many students as possible, the course is offered
there is pressure from the state legislature to reduce the number of        during the fall, spring, and the second summer terms, achieving an
credit hours required for graduation. This places the constraint that       annual capacity of 840 students.
the Introduction to Engineering course is neither required nor count-
ed in the engineering curriculum. Students, facing the possibility of a
penalty for graduating with excess credit hours, are forced to decide                        III. LABORATORY CONTENT
if the course will be of benefit. As a result, a second constraint is im-
posed—the new course featuring laboratory activities in place of lec-          Each department with an undergraduate engineering program
tures increases the student time commitment (from one to three              has designed activities representative of its discipline to engage the
hours) while still giving students only one-credit hour. Asking stu-        students during their visit. Each department designed its own labo-
dents for greater effort with no additional credit is a precarious posi-    ratory, but the designers were asked to design their laboratories
tion for a course, so letter grades were added to the laboratory ver-       within a framework of three goals: to demonstrate the diversity of
sion of the course to provide an added incentive. The assignment of         engineering, to give students a simplified and exciting view of what
a letter grade is justified because of the improved level of contact.       the engineering process includes, and to teach basic skills and con-
    The laboratory class was offered to students in lieu of the lecture     cepts. The different departments weigh these goals differently. As a
course. The format of the laboratory course follows. Students meet          result, in addition to achieving these goals, students also learn about
weekly for a three-hour block (three times the duration of the lec-         the character of individual departments.
ture section) and are given a letter grade. The departments are not            Below is a brief description of each department’s activity. These
required to use the full three-hour block, but most make full use of        activities are readily and regularly modified, however. The actual
the allotted time. The grade for this one-credit course is based on         content of each semester is at the discretion of the individual de-
both attendance and participation, but students are allowed to miss         partments. Many of the departments have extensive handouts for
two classes without affecting their grade. Each absence after the           the students describing in greater detail the specific activities of the
second decreases the student’s grade by one half letter grade. The          day and the department and its degree programs in general. These
14 groups of students meet once at the beginning of the semester to         handouts help eliminate lecture time during the class period.
receive instructions for the remainder of the semester. Students re-
main in the same groups through the remainder of the semester as            A. Aerospace Engineering, Mechanics, and Engineering Science
they are rotated through 14 meetings: 11 engineering departments               Student teams build a composite plate using hydraulic cement,
that have undergraduate programs, 2 computer skills sessions, and           cotton balls, string, and other materials. The plate is intended to
1 week off (which can be used to make up missed classes).                   protect an egg from damage when a steel ball is dropped on the plate
    The first year of this two-year project was used to establish a         with the egg underneath. The drop height is increased until failure.
foundation for the program. In fall 1992, individual experiments
were developed and evaluation criteria were established. In spring          B. Agricultural Engineering
1993, the laboratory was introduced in an experimental phase to a              Students conduct one of three activities:
small number of students. Summer 1993 was used to update the ex-               • comparing a corn kernel’s calculated terminal velocity to the
periments, develop the final experimental handouts, and share the                 true terminal velocity measured in an aerodynamic wind tunnel;
preliminary results with SUCCEED member schools. In fall 1993,
the capacity of the laboratory section of the class was expanded to
accommodate approximately the same numbers of students as the
lecture section.
    The spring 1993 cohort in the laboratory section was selected as
follows: enrollment was first solicited through honors advising,
which yielded approximately 15 students. This was done to mini-
mize the potential damage of the educational experiment. This was
not a large enough enrollment, so additional students were recruit-
ed by Hoit, who made an appeal to students already registered for                Table 1. Enrollment in lecture and laboratory sections.
the lecture section. This appeal was made at the lecture section’s

80   Journal of Engineering Education                                                                                               January 1998
• controlling the temperature of a greenhouse; or                     K. Nuclear Engineering
   • studying the movement of chemicals through soils.                       Students tour the department’s facilities, ending in the reactor
   Findings are presented to the larger group.                           facility where sub-groups conduct hot channel factor measure-
                                                                         ments, a trace element analysis using neutron activation analysis,
C. Chemical Engineering                                                  and half-life measurements.
   Students hear about separating mixtures of chemicals into their           The two computer skills sessions were originally an introduction
constituent parts as an important part of chemical engineering. The      to word processing and spreadsheet use, but it was quickly discov-
students then observe an extraction column in operation. Small           ered that the vast majority of students already possessed these skills.
groups conduct an experiment using two distillation columns and          In the current sessions, students search for a variety of information
an evaporator and reconvene to discuss results.                          on the World-Wide Web and use MathCAD™ to study a variety
                                                                         of problems and perform what-if analyses.
D. Civil Engineering
    Students first hear about sub-disciplines of civil engineering,
then watch destructive tests of steel and concrete. After a brief dis-     IV. AN EXAMPLE OF THE DESIGN OF AN ACTIVITY
cussion of trusses, student teams build 2-D trusses with popsicle                     (CIVIL ENGINEERING)
sticks and bolts which are tested to failure in a special load frame.
The laboratory ends with the firing of a hurricane debris simulator.         As an example of how the former lecture-dominated model was
                                                                         updated to the more active laboratory version, the modifications to
E. Computer and Information Sciences Engineering                         the civil engineering component will be discussed. As a faculty
   During this laboratory, students log in to a workstation. They        member and graduate student in the Civil Engineering Depart-
then learn the simple programming language of a robot simulator          ment, Hoit designed the original civil engineering activity for the
so that they can complete three programs with specific objectives        survey course described in this article and Hoit and Ohland collab-
written in terms of the robot’s behavior.                                orated in the improvement of the activity. All other activities were
                                                                         designed by the faculty within their respective disciplines.
F. Electrical Engineering                                                    The new laboratory has much greater student interaction than
Students conduct an experiment involving an AM radio. Shown a            the lecture version and, consequently, more opportunity for feed-
rough flow chart of the circuit schematic and given a brief descrip-     back. As a result, the laboratory activity has experienced some mod-
tion of the radio’s components, students tune the radio to several       ification since its inception. This does not violate this study, since
different stations and measure the frequency, period, and amplitude      the feedback loop that improves the laboratory version of the course
of the signal being transmitted using an oscilloscope.                   is part of its advantage over the lecture version.
                                                                             The design of the civil engineering laboratory activity assumed
G. Environmental Engineering and Science                                 little preparation, since high school experiences may vary. Since
   Each of three groups performs an experiment:                          each group of students will only be in a particular activity for three
   • a kinetic uptake study;                                             hours with no follow-up, the activity is designed to be short and
   • an adsorption isotherm study; or                                    self-contained. In order to foster a team effort in producing a group
   • a spectrophotometry procedure.                                      product,26 a short design project was included. Although we chose
   Student groups finish by preparing and presenting their results.      to feature the design, construction, and testing of a 2-D truss, it was
                                                                         not consistent with the objectives of this course to conduct an ex-
H. Industrial and Systems Engineering                                    tensive project (such as those by others27,37) that requires a greater
    In this activity, students investigate the optimization of an as-    time for problem definition and demands significant prerequisite
sembly line. The products of the activity have included origami          knowledge.
flapping birds and LegoTM designs. Preparation for this activity in-         The handouts for the Truss Bridge Laboratory can be viewed on
cludes watching a short film describing the discipline and capacity      the World-Wide Web.36 We consciously decided to minimize lec-
planning.                                                                ture time and maximize the time used for activities or demonstra-
                                                                         tions. Some parts of the older format (graduation requirements,
I. Materials Science and Engineering                                     salary expectations, etc.) were included in a laboratory handout rather
    Students first watch a film that discusses the job and projected     than discussed. Our experience has been that students with a prior in-
shortage of materials engineers. Students then examine the micro-        terest in civil engineering or those who are particularly excited by the
scopic properties of two steel samples to see how mechanical and         laboratory keep the handouts to read this information at a later time.
thermal processing alter their structure. Finally, the students test         The new format, taught by either or both of us throughout the
how these changes affect the steel’s properties.                         experimental period, follows: first, the various disciplines of civil
                                                                         engineering are described in a brief account (5-10 minutes in total)
J. Mechanical Engineering                                                which includes examples of the work done by each; concrete and
    Students tour the University of Florida (UF) cogeneration plant,     steel specimens are then tested to failure (15 minutes); a lecture
which is a teaching facility. They then hear about the department        (~15 minutes) follows to introduce students to the concepts of mo-
and discuss their expectations of engineering and college. This lab-     ment, moment of inertia, neutral axis, failure modes, and truss de-
oratory focuses particularly on success skills and student discussion.   sign.36 Instructor-assigned student teams of 3-4 individuals then
                                                                         design and construct 2-D trusses out of popsicle sticks with bolted
                                                                         connections (45 minutes). The trusses are then tested to failure in a

January 1998                                                                                           Journal of Engineering Education 81
special load frame. The testing process is accompanied by com-             group. We decided to define retention as remaining in an engineer-
mentary from the instructor. The benefit of using instructor-as-           ing program into the third year of study. Since attrition is much
signed teams is somewhat thwarted since we do not have the op-             more prevalent in the first two years of engineering education, this
portunity to employ a sophisticated assignment technique. Two              measure should be an excellent estimator of the true retention rate.
objectives have been met through the instructor-assignment                 In very specific terms, students are defined as “retained” if their sta-
process, however. Students who are clearly very good friends (and          tus as indicated by University of Florida transcript records indicated
might therefore dominate the group) can be separated, and women            they were still within the engineering college at the time the data
and minority students can be grouped so they are not outnumbered           were reported. We obtained our data set from student transcripts in
in their teams, improving their experience.28                              the summer of 1996.
    A score for each truss is computed on a strength-to-cost basis
(~10 minutes) (cost being a function of the amount of material
used). A hurricane testing apparatus (which is essentially a pneu-                         VI. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION
matic cannon that launches a piece of lumber) is then demonstrat-
ed. The laboratory ends with the instructor encouraging students to            Tables 2 and 3 show the number of students enrolled, the number
seek student membership in technical societies (a society represen-        retained, and the retention percentage for all students, women stu-
tative is sometimes present) and to take advantage of various services     dents, and minority students of the laboratory and lecture courses re-
offered by the UF College of Engineering (including advising).             spectively. Entries in the “semester” column indicate the semester
                                                                           in which the students took the course. The overall percentages are
                                                                           the most significant because they describe the behavior over all
             V. ASSESSMENT METHODOLOGY                                     three cohorts. This is especially important in the case of women and
                                                                           minority statistics, for which the number enrolled in a particular se-
    The assessment methods used to evaluate freshman introductory          mester is generally small, and the sample population of all three co-
experiences vary greatly. While many indicate that among their ob-         horts is needed to achieve an adequate sample size.
jectives is the improvement of retention, it is a common practice to           Please note that the “women” and “minorities” categories over-
assume that the assessment of the professor or the positive attitude       lap, in that some of the minorities are women and are thus counted
of the students as measured through a questionnaire is sufficient to       in the fifth column. While numbers were too small to permit sepa-
conclude that such an improvement will occur. A number of studies,         rate analyses, the number of women included in the minority group
at the time of publication, mention either no assessment or assess-        has been added in parentheses for reference.
ment only by the course professors.5,6,13,16,20 Also common is the eval-       Figure 1 shows graphically the large gains in retention of those
uation of student interests, attitudes, and knowledge through the          students who took the laboratory course.
use of a survey/questionnaire instrument.7,11,14,15,18 Two studies were        Since the data set used for this analysis was obtained in the sum-
found that used written student evaluations and interviews to assess       mer of 1996, the fall 1994 cohort and more recent cohorts are not
student opinions in more depth.10,19 Retention studies have been           included in this study, as the students of later cohorts would not yet
used in a minority of cases, either alone9 or in combination with a        have been expected to have reached the upper division in significant
questionnaire.8,12 The absence of a control group is pervasive, espe-      numbers.
cially in studies that use a questionnaire.                                    The expected and observed retention frequencies were com-
    As Sanders and Burton29 suggest, both questionnaire and reten-         pared using a 2x2 Chi-Square test, to which Yates’ correction was
tion data used together complement each other. Questionnaire data          applied.33 The test showed that the retention of the general popula-
by themselves may suffer from the uninformed opinion of students,          tion and that of women was significantly greater (a =.05) for stu-
who might recognize a course’s value only after entering the work          dents taking the laboratory course (in fact, p
Table 2. Laboratory retention percentages

     Table 3. Lecture retention percentages

     Table 4. Typical pre-test responses for lecture and laboratory sections.

    Students were also questioned as to the factors motivating them         ases are removed from consideration.
to choose engineering as a major. The responses for the lecture and            We next investigated the possibility that other programs had
laboratory students are shown in Table 5.                                   caused the difference between the groups. No programs could be
    We first note from Table 5 that the rank ordering of the student        identified which would have preferentially influenced the laborato-
preferences is identical for the students in the lecture section and        ry group. A variety of educational reforms have taken place in the
those in the laboratory section. Since we do not know that these            University of Florida College of Engineering in recent years.
two populations are different at entry into the different courses, the      Among these have been advising within the college for freshmen
expected frequency of responses must be assumed to be the average           and sophomores and a transition program for minority students.
of all responses. This means that neither group differs by more than        Neither of these programs, however, were initiated early enough to
five percentage points from the expected frequency.                         have an impact on the results presented here. The advising of lower
    Two observations from Table 5 are critical. First, parental influ-      division students was officially initiated just this year, and the Suc-
ence, which is recognized as a strong factor in student persistence,34      cessful Transition through Enhancing Preparation for Undergrad-
appears to be equal in the two groups (#4). Second, the percentage          uate Programs (STEPUP) program was initiated in the summer of
of students who had no plan on majoring in engineering but took             1995.35
the class anyway was the same in both groups. Therefore, these bi-

January 1998                                                                                             Journal of Engineering Education 83
Figure 1. Cumulative retention for lecture and laboratory class.

     Table 5. Sources of motivation for lecture and laboratory students.

                      VII. CONCLUSIONS                                     member in a small-group environment.
                                                                              Retention of women and minorities was raised to the level of the
   The conversion of the University of Florida’s Introduction to En-       general population, a level much higher than that observed among
gineering course to one with laboratory activities in place of lectures    those students attending the lecture version. It is unfortunate that
has been accompanied by significant improvements in retention.             low numbers of minorities prevented conclusions with statistical
Although the magnitude of the change apparently caused by a sin-           significance, but the observed trend seems likely to be borne out in
gle course engenders skepticism, we have been unable to identify           years to come.
any other causes which account for the observed improvements.                 The results of this study therefore suggest that a course which
We suggest that the primary advantages of the course as designed           surveys all the engineering disciplines through the use of active lab-
are the use of active learning and the early association of students       oratories has significant potential for improving student retention.
with the engineering departments. The latter of these will help stu-       While we do not wish to suggest that a course such as ours should
dents to receive discipline-specific advising, join professional soci-     supersede other proven methods of increasing student persistence,
ety student chapters, and meet at least one department faculty             we believe that it adds to the arsenal of such approaches.

84   Journal of Engineering Education                                                                                             January 1998
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS                                              18. McDonough, J.F. and B.A. Harding, “Fostering Creative Think-
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   Funding for this work was provided by the NSF to SUCCEED                    ASEE, 1996, Session 3515.
(Cooperative Agreement No. EID-9109853) and by matching                            19. Nelson, J.D., M.K. Ogle, and R.O. Warrington, “Engineering
contributions provided by the University of Florida. The University            Orientation: An Introduction to Creativity in Engineering,” Proceedings,
of Florida is also acknowledged for its institutionalization of the            1992 ASEE Annual Conference, ASEE, 1992, Session 1253, p. 97.
survey course described in this article.                                           20. Morris, David, “An Experiment in Freshman Design,” Proceedings,
                                                                               1990 ASEE Annual Conference, ASEE, 1992, Session 1653, p. 839.
                                                                                   21. Ercolano, Vincent, “From Sleep 101 to Success 101,” ASEE Prism,
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January 1998                                                                                                   Journal of Engineering Education 85
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