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  • Improving Student Success Through a Model

    "Introduction to Engineering" Course

    by Raymond B. Landis

    California State University, Los Angeles
    Los Angeles, California



    Between 1982 and 1990, the number of freshman engineering students enrolled in four-year universities declined from 115,303 to 94,346, an 18 percent drop [1]. This decline, the result of both a decrease in the U.S. college-age population and a diminished interest on the part of high school graduates in the study of engineering, is projected to continue. Because of these trends, a number of reports [2,3,4] have predicted severe shortages in the supply of B.S. engineering graduates over the next fifteen year time period.

    One source of "leakage" in the engineering education pipeline is attrition of students who start as freshmen but do not graduate. It is estimated that less than one-half of the students who matriculate as engineering freshmen in four-year universities ever graduate. Over fifty percent change their majors, flunk out, or drop out. This attrition represents a substantial loss of human potential to the engineering profession.

    Much of this loss is unnecessary. Considering the generally high admissions standards of our engineering colleges, many if not most of these students could succeed. A major reason why they do not is that they cannot adjust to the "sink or swim" environment they face in many of our engineering colleges. Whereas corporations recognize that new engineering graduates will require several years to transition into becoming productive engineers, our engineering colleges generally expect recent high school graduates to adjust immediately to the new environment, culture, and rigors of engineering study.

    The need to provide a transition experience for minority engineering freshmen has long been recognized and is the primary focus of successful Minority Engineering Programs (MEPs). The definitive handbook on MEPs, Improving the Retention and Graduation of Minorities in Engineering published by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) [5], states:

    The MEP approach is designed to meet the needs of students by aiding them in overcoming barriers to their academic success. Its primary purpose is to set students on their feet by taking them from where they are both academically and personally to where they need to be to become competent, self-assured, and successful in their academic pursuits. To facilitate this "transition," the program concentrates on freshman and sophomore students.

    By focusing on the need for a freshman year transition experience, MEPs have been highly successful in improving the academic performance and graduation rates of minority engineering students [6].

    One of the key structural elements of effective MEPs is an "Introduction to Engineering" freshman orientation course [7]. The need for this course is based on the premises that many freshman engineering students: (1) generally have unclear goals and values; (2) are apprehensive and anxious about their unfamiliar surroundings and new experiences; (3) are not well versed about the culture and expectations of engineering study and are unaware of optimum strategies for approaching it. In order to aid students in adjusting to the rigors of engineering study, a freshman orientation course has the following specific objectives:

    To improve the students' peer environment by building freshman engineering students into a supportive academic community.
    To teach the students strategies and approaches required to be effective in the study of math, science, engineering problem- solving courses.
    To aid the students in their personal development by improving their self-confidence, interpersonal communication skills, and organizational and leadership skills.
    To motivate the students through an increased awareness of the value of an education generally, and more specifically of the opportunities and rewards of a career in engineering.
    To orient the students to the culture, environment, and resources of the engineering college and the university.

    Although freshman orientation courses with the primary purpose of meeting the above objectives are widely offered to minority engineering students, these courses are not consistently offered to all students. A recent survey conducted by the author as part of a National Science Foundation Undergraduate Curriculum Development in Engineering, Mathematics, and the Sciences grant titled "Improving Student Success Through a Model 'Introduction to Engineering' Course" indicated that 33 percent of the nation's engineering programs offer no "Introduction to Engineering" course. Another 23 percent do offer such a course, but the primary content does not address the five objectives listed above. Hence only about 45 percent of the nation's engineering freshman are required to take an "Introduction to Engineering" course and the quality of these courses is mixed. For example, 46 percent of those courses do not address the topic of academic survival skills. Another 45 percent, devote between five and fifteen percent of the course to that subject. Only two percent devote more than twenty five percent of the course content to academic survival skills. Many of the "Introduction to Engineering" courses currently being taught focus primarily on content in the areas of engineering graphics and computing.

    There are many reasons why "Introduction to Engineering" courses that focus primarily on the five objectives listed above are scarce. The faculty reward system does not provide incentives for the best engineering faculty to focus on the freshman year curriculum. Most engineering faculty are more comfortable teaching content in their technical discipline than they are teaching freshman engineering students how to be effective in the study of mathematics, science, and engineering. Even for faculty willing to teach a freshman orientation course, there is a paucity of textbooks or other curricular material that focus on the above objectives. Those "Introduction to Engineering" textbooks in print concentrate primarily on content such as descriptive material about specific engineering disciplines and content aimed at developing students' skills in computing and engineering graphics.

    The need for "Introduction to Engineering" courses to improve student academic performance and retention has recently been recognized by the nation's engineering deans. In the final report of the Engineering Deans Council Task Force on the Engineering Student Pipeline [8], the following recommendation was made:

    Recognizing that many students may need assistance in the transition from high school to college, [engineering schools should] establish appropriate orientation activities or courses to teach them how to cope with a college environment. Provide nurturing early.

    As a result of this recommendation and the impetus for freshman year curricula innovation provided by the National Science Foundation through its Engineering Education Coalitions and Curriculum Development Programs, there appears to be a growing interest in and recognition of the value of "Introduction to Engineering" freshman orientation courses. One indication of this interest was the excellent completion rate of the previously mentioned survey on "Introduction to Engineering" courses. Ninety-three percent (250/270) of the surveys were completed and returned. Of the 82 respondents that indicated they have no course, 43 percent responded that they would definitely be interested in working as part of the project to develop and implement such a course. Of the 120 respondents that have a course administered by the engineering college and required of all engineering freshmen, 53 percent responded that they would definitely be interested in working as part of the project to improve the effectiveness of the course. Another 36 percent responded that they might be interested. Only 11 percent indicated no interest. Hence, the results of the survey demonstrated that there is significant potential for initiating "Introduction to Engineering" courses where they do not exist and for improving the effectiveness of such courses where they already exist.


    One of the goals of the NSF project is to identify a group of faculty who will work collaboratively to develop a "model" curriculum for an "Introduction to Engineering" freshman orientation course, implement this curriculum on a pilot basis, and measure the impact of the course on student success. The following sections describe specific curricular content and teaching methodologies for accomplishing the five objectives previously listed for an "Introduction to Engineering" course. During the NSF project, this material will be revised, expanded, and documented.

    Community Building

    Perhaps the most important objective of a freshman orientation course is building freshman engineering students into a supportive academic community. Freshman engineering students represent an enormous resource to each other. They can support each other academically through the sharing of information and group study. They can support each other socially--having friends who share common goals and similar workloads is of great value. When one's friends are all studying, studying becomes the order of the day. Personal sacrifice becomes easier when it is the norm. And they can support each other psychologically. Students that are part of a supportive community are likely to do whatever is required to stay in that community.

    The community building process can be divided logically into three stages:

    1) socialization;
    2) group building;
    3) human relations training.

    These stages do not necessarily occur sequentially. In fact, each should be an ongoing process.

    Socialization. The purpose of the socialization stage is to get the students to know each other. A critical first step is for each student to learn the name of every other student in the class. This can be accomplished through name learning exercises, small group discussions, and group projects. Ensuring that the students know each other's names will take some class time, but the benefits are well worth the effort. Once students know each other by name, interpersonal relationships will develop and grow, particularly among those students who are in the same sections of their other courses. And don't take it for granted that the students will get to know each other on their own. I often see colleagues on campus whose names I should know, but I am embarrassed to show that I don't by asking. Without help, students will be in that same situation.

    Group Building. The second stage in the community building process is to create a strong sense of group cohesiveness and mutual support. To foster this sense, the following attitudes need to be transmitted:

    "The students in this group are your greatest resource. You are a team. If you support each other, you will all benefit. You will learn more and you will enjoy it more. By working together, you develop the skills that will make you effective as 'team players' in the engineering work-world."

    This process of shifting students' perspective from being "individual-centered" to being "group-centered," from a spirit of competition to a spirit of cooperation and mutual support, is extremely important. Not only will this shift enhance students' effectiveness during their study of engineering but also throughout their career.

    Human Relations Training. The third stage in the community building process is to provide the students with some basic human relations training. Even if students are committed to supporting each other, they may lack the skills to be effective in doing so. One simple but powerful class exercise is to have each student write down a list of things that they "want and need from other students in the group" and another list of things that they "don't want and don't need from other students in the group." A compilation of all the students' lists will provide an excellent basis for discussing those behaviors that are supportive of others and those behaviors that are not supportive of others. Where the course instructor lacks expertise in the area of human relations training, help from professionals in that field should be sought. Generally, very experienced human relations trainers can be found in the university counseling center or the psychology or educational psychology departments.

    Academic Survival Skills

    Another very important objective of the freshman orientation course is to teach students what they need to know to be effective as students in math, science, and engineering "problem- solving" courses. In my experience, there are a few extremely powerful principles which if put into practice by students will virtually assure their academic success. The challenge is to develop a teaching methodology which will bring about behavioral changes called for by these principles. One effective approach to use in the freshman orientation course is to teach a principle, ask the students to put it into practice, and then have them report back to the class as to how it worked for them. As students hear that their peers are making changes to more productive behaviors and that these changes are producing tangible results, they are influenced to "get with the program."

    What are these powerful principles? Alexander Astin's article "Involvement: The Cornerstone of Excellence" [9] provides one outstanding model for identifying them and for giving the students a framework from which to view their education. Astin indicates that excellence in education is directly related to "student involvement" as measured by five metrics:

    Time and energy devoted to studying
    Time spent on campus
    Participation in student organizations
    Interaction with faculty
    Interaction with other students

    The overall message for students is that if they want to get an excellent education, they should devote considerable time and energy to studying, immerse themselves in the academic environment of the university, participate actively in student organizations, make effective use of their professors, and study collaboratively with other students. The following sections expand briefly on each of these principles. A more detailed treatment can be found in the author's monograph "Academic Gamesmanship: Becoming a 'Master' Engineering Student." [10]

    Time and Energy Devoted to Study. There are many important concepts that students need to learn in relation to "time and energy devoted to studying." However, virtually all are in support of one underlying principle:

    Don't allow the next class session in a course to come without havin mastered the material presented in the previous session.

    This is easier said than done. The tendency of most students is to fall into the trap of studying from test to test rather than from class to class. Students need to be taught that this approach will not be effective for problem-solving courses where each new concept builds on prior ones--that by not keeping up in their classes they are converting a sound educational process into an unsound one. They need to understand the concept of "time on task" and realize that the amount of effort they put in will be a primary factor in how well they do. They need to realize that learning is a reinforcement process--that we learn by many, many exposures to concepts over a long period of time, not by cramming for tests at the last minute. They need to recognize that their study time is more important than their class time and that when they negotiate it away they are borrowing time from the future, time that will not be there. And they need to develop time management skills and a commitment to using their time effectively.

    Time on Campus/Student Organizations. The importance of spending time on campus and of participation in student organizations should both be emphasized. Students will benefit from immersion in the academic environment of the university. Students who come to campus for their classes and leave as soon as they are over miss out on many important resources. Once students leave the campus they go from an academic environment to a non-academic environment--one where there may be many distracting influences. Students should also be encouraged to participate actively in student organizations. Through this participation, they will develop their leadership skills, organizational skills, and communications skills. They will gain experience in working effectively with others to accomplish objectives. The experience and skills gained through active participation in student organizations are as important to students' development as the content they learn in their classes.

    Interaction with Professors. Students should be strongly encouraged to make effective use of their professors. Professors can provide students with valuble one-on-one instruction, academic advising, career guidance, and job references. The first step is to help students overcome any fear or intimidation they feel toward professors. Some human relations training can be helpful in this regard. There are three things about professors that students can learn to use to their benefit

    professors have chosen to devote their careers to teaching and believe that they are good at it;

    professors view their technical speciality as extremely interesting and vitally important;

    professors are very knowledgeable and enjoy communicating their knowledge to others.

    Students should be taught what behaviors support these characteristics of professors and what behaviors are in conflict with them. Obviously, students know that they should refrain from behaviors such as being late to class, sleeping in class, talking in class, and not turning in their homework. But do they realize the benefits of visiting their professors during their office hours and talking with them? Students report tremendously positive experiences when they visit a professor in his or her office and ask such simple questions as "How did you decide to become a professor?" or "Why should I choose to become a civil engineer?"

    Interaction with Students. Teaching students how to make effective use of their peers is one of the most important academic survival skills that can be imparted in a freshman orientation course. The benefits of collaborative learning and group study are enormous. Unfortunately, many students do virtually all of their studying alone. This pattern may have developed in high school where students may have found the work easy and therefore had no need to work with other students.

    Students who study primarily alone typically give three reasons why they do so:

    1) they feel that they learn more working alone;

    2) they think they don't have anyone to study with;

    3) they feel its not right for students to collaborate on their academic work.

    All three of these reasons can be dispelled by discussing the efficacy of collaborative learning and group study in the freshman orientation class. There are three points that I have found to be very effective in persuading students of the benefits of collaborative learning: 1) they will learn the subject much better; 2) they will be better prepared for the engineering work world; and 3) it's more fun so they will probably do more of it.

    The starting point for addressing all three of these issues is to give students a higher context from which to view their education. Studying alone might be defensible if one's view of the purpose of an education is to become proficient at working alone to master knowledge. However, an education should be much more than that. A quality engineering education involves not only mastering knowledge, but also becoming proficient at communicating that knowledge to others. Students who spend four years working alone will have missed out on much of what is important in their education and will not be well prepared for the engineering work-world where communcation skills and the ability to work with others are highly valued.

    I encourage students to spend about two-thirds of their study time mastering the material and one-third of their time discussing it with other students. Using this approach strengthens their ability to communicate their knowledge and to receive feedback about whether they are understood. Students also develop their ability to listen to others present their ideas--an ability that we too often take for granted. Through the collaborative process, students will also develop a better understanding of the subject matter. Since more points of view on the subject will brought to bear, students will broaden their thinking skills. As they teach each other, they will be challenged to deepen their understanding. Finally, collaborative learning allows students to meet their social needs while they are learning. Because studying with others is more enjoyable, they will be likely to spend more time doing it.

    Personal Development

    Another important objective of the freshman orientation course is to assist students in their personal development. Providing human relations training to help students improve their interpersonal communication skills has already been discussed. Another goal should be to assist students in building self-esteem and self-confidence. The old cliche where the dean comes in and tells the freshman students, "Look to the right, look to the left. Two of the three of you won't be here at graduation," is no longer operative. Students need to feel that they are special, that they are valued by the institution, and that every one of them can be successful in engineering study.

    There are wonderful motivational messages, like Jesse Jackson's "excel" message, that can benefit students. Jackson's basic theme is that people should strive to "do their best" in whatever they undertake. This concept can be reinforced with a class exercise in which students brainstorm and discuss all of the reasons why they should "do their best." Football Lou Holtz offers inspirational messages as well. Perhaps his strongest is that everyone who sets a goal and strives to achieve that goal will encounter adversity. The main difference between people who succeed and people who fail is how they handle that adversity. The message for students is that the most likely reason they will not graduate is that they will encounter some adversity and give up. I tell students "Your success here will depend primarily on three things: 1) your determination to persist; 2) your effort; and 3) your effectiveness in putting the academic survival principles you learn in this course into practice."

    Students can also be assisted in the development of their leadership and organizational skills. While stressing the importance of working effectively with others, students can be taught principles of organizational management including building organizational structures, setting objectives, and managing organizations to meet those objectives.

    Examples of other areas of personal development which might be addressed are stress reduction, conflict resolution, assertiveness training, learning styles, goal setting, and management of personal finances.

    Professional Development

    The freshman orientation course can also assist students in their professional development. Here the primary focus should be to increase the students' understanding of engineering as a field of study and as a profession. Many students may have chosen to study engineering almost by default, having received encouragement to do so because they did well in their high school mathematics and science courses. Many will know very little about engineering. This is a serious problem given the hard work and personal sacrifices required to succeed in engineering study. And if students don't learn about engineering in a freshman orientation course, they probably will learn very little about it during their first two years in college. Increasing students' understanding of engineering can be approached on three levels:

    1) motivating them through an increased awareness of the rewards and opportunities of a career in engineering;

    2) giving them an understanding of the "engineering process"; and

    3) exposing them to the different technical specialities and job functions of the engineering profession.

    Rewards of an Engineering Career. Giving students an in-depth perspective on what it will mean to their lives if they are successful in engineering study has enormous motivational value. One excellent class exercise is to have students brainstorm a list of the rewards and opportunities that will come to them if they graduate in engineering. Except for the idea that engineers are well paid, most students have given little or no thought to the many other rewards an engineering education will bring to them. With a little help from the course facilitator, the list might number 30 or 40 items including:

    Good income
    Challenging work
    Solving society's problems
    Development of logical thinking ability
    Job satisfaction
    Variety of career paths
    Good employment opportunity
    Enhanced self-esteem
    Job security
    Good health and retirement benefits
    Professional work environment
    Association with interesting people
    Opportunity to travel
    Opportunity to express creativity
    Involvement at the forefront of technology

    An assignment to write a term paper on "Why I Want to be an Engineer" which expands on several of the items in the above list will aid students in clarifying their reasons for wanting to become an engineer.

    What is Engineering? Students will also benefit from an understanding of the "engineering process"--or put more directly, students should be able to answer a question they will be frequently asked: "What is engineering?" As an example, students need to be taught that engineering is the process of producing a technical product to meet a specific need. They should understand that the need is generally described by a set of specifications: performance specifications (e.g. weight, size, speed, safety, reliability); economic specifications (e.g. cost, price); and scheduling specifications (e.g. delivery date).

    Students should know that the first step in the engineering process involves coming up with several different designs that meet the specifications and that the design process relies not only on engineering tools such as computer-aided drafting, structural analysis, computer modelling, material science, and manufacturing processes, but also on a great deal of engineering commmon sense and experience. The students should understand that eventually one or more of the designs will be fabricated and put through a series of tests to see how well it meets the performance specifications. Finally, students should be made aware that there may be many iterations through this entire process before the final design is selected. They should also know that, whereas in school most problems have a single right answer, in "real-world" engineering there are generally many solutions to a single problem.

    Students' understanding of the "engineering process" is greatly enhanced by illustrating it with examples or case studies, ideally ones that are interesting to them and relevant to their lives: a machine to pitch baseballs; a guard rail along a mountain road; a device which would cause a VCR to skip the commercials while taping a TV show; a device to mark the forward progress of a football electronically; or a "fail-proof" car alarm. It may be a challenge to identify an individual to cover this topic. Many engineering professors and practicing engineers are very effective at communicating specific parts of the engineering process. However, it is the exceptional person that has both the breadth of practical experience and the communication skills required to give a clear and stimulating presentation on the "engineering process" to freshman students.

    Engineering Specialities/Job Functions. The task of exposing students to the technical specialities and job functions which categorize engineers is much easier. Students should be given some exposure to each of the five traditional engineering specialities--electrical, mechanical, civil, chemical, and industrial--and also made aware that there are non-traditional specialities (e.g. nuclear, environmental, aerospace, petroleum, biomedical, mining, etc.). Department chairs or faculty can be brought in as guest lecturers for this purpose. However, too much of this can be boring and repetitive.

    Students should also know about the different job functions that engineers perform, most commonly: design, analysis, test, development, research, and management. Students should also know that there are field engineers, sales engineers, and service engineers, and that opportunities exist for engineers in training and teaching. Guest speakers from industry can be brought in to talk about these various job functions. Alumni are ideal for this role. An assignment to interview a practicing engineer and write a written report on the experience can further enhance students' understanding of what engineers do.

    Students should learn about various industry sectors and how they utilize engineers. Oil companies, aircraft manufacturers, utility companies, aerospace electronics firms, large constructors, computer manufacturers, and chemical companies are examples of major industry sectors that are significant employers of engineers. Field trips to local engineering firms can enhance students' awareness of the engineering work place. Students can also be exposed to industry through required attendance at university or engineering college-sponsored industry career days.

    Other important topics in professional development include resume writing, preparing for interviews, opportunities for graduate study, and the engineering professional registration process.

    Orientation to the College of Engineering and the University

    The final objective of the freshman orientation course is to orient students to the engineering college and the university. Orientation to the engineering college should include topics such as administrative organization, faculty, curriculum, facilities, academic advising system, student organizations, and academic regulations. It is important that students thoroughly understand important academic regulations and procedures such as drop/add procedures, the grading system, and the academic disqualification system. Orientation to the university should make students aware of campus resources such as the library, financial aid office, academic support centers, counseling center, student health center, and placement office.

    Administrative Issues

    The previous sections have detailed five primary objectives which if accomplished will significantly improve the academic performance and retention of freshman engineering students. However, achieving these objectives requires adequate contact time and adequate incentives to guarantee serious student participation. In my experience, at least 45 hours of total contact time (3 hours per week for a semester) is required to meet these objectives. In terms of incentive, it is doubtful that any other than academic credit will motivate the desired level of student participation. Where universities have attempted to orient their students through voluntary activities, attendance has been extremely poor. Even incentives such as scholarships, priority registration, and summer jobs in industry have not been able to compete with an upcoming calculus exam for students' time.

    Receptivity of faculty to giving academic credit for freshman orientation courses varies greatly from one institution to the next. At some institutions, faculty feel that such courses are not worthy of "academic" credit. At others, faculty resistance comes more from the practical problem of finding room in an already overcrowded curriculum. Those who bring a proposal for an "Introduction to Engineering" course to the academic approval process may find themselves defending the course against the undesirable alternatives of increasing the number of units required for graduation or eliminating some "absolutely essential" engineering content from the curriculum. The best that can be done is to put forth, as persuasively as possible, the argument that devoting one or two percent of the curriculum to improving students' effectiveness in learning the other ninety eight percent is a very wise investment. Since the amount of homework required of students in this type of course is less than in their technical courses, one way to get adequate contact time while minimizing the impact on the curriculum is to establish the course as a one unit laboratory.


    The fundamental tenet of this paper is that current engineering curricula devote 128 semester credit hours or more to teaching students subject content, whereas very little time or effort is devoted to teaching students strategies for being effective at the process of learning that content. The current situation has parallels to learning a game of skill such as chess. One could learn how to conduct a game of chess in a relatively short time. However, by merely playing the game improvement would be slow and ultimate level of mastery low. Mastery at a high level would require not only playing the game but devoting considerble time to learning how to play. In like manner, not only do our students need to learn content, but they need to learn how to learn and how to be effective learners. And the payoff for helping our students become effective as students is enormous. Not only will they perform better in our courses, the skills they need to be effective as engineering students are the same skills they will need to be effective during their engineering career.

    An "Introduction to Engineering" freshman orientation course has proven to be an effective academic structure for providing these skills. Through the course, five objectives can be accomplished which will benefit students: 1) improve their peer environment; 2) teach them essential academic survival skills; 3) aid them in their personal development; 4) enhance their professional development; and 5) orient them to the engineering college and the university. In meeting these objectives, we are in essence undergoing a paradigm shift a shift from a paradigm where each student is left to "sink or swim" to a paradigm in which we assist each of our students in achieving all that he or she can. In the first case, we believe that most of our students will fail, and we are not surprised when they do. In the second case, we believe that all of our students will succeed, and we are surprised if one does not.


    This work was supported in part by a National Science Foundation Undergraduate Curriculum Development in Engineering, Mathematics, and the Sciences grant "Improving Student Success Through a Model 'Introduction to Engineering' Course."


    "Engineering and Technology Enrollments Part I, Engineering," Fall 1982 and Fall 1990, Engineering Manpower Commission, Washington, DC.

    "Future Scarcities of Scientists and Engineers: Problems and Solutions A Working Draft," Division of Policy Research and Analysis, National Science Foundation, Washington, D.C., 1989.

    "Changing America: A The New Face of Science and Engineering, Final Report," Task Force on Women, Minorities, and the Handicapped in Science and Engineering, U.S. Congress, Washington, D.C., 1989.

    McDonald, Jean, Clarke, Marianne K., and Dobson, Eric N., "Increasing the Supply of Women and Minority Engineers: An Agenda for State Action," National Governors' Association, Washington, D.C., 1990.

    Handbook on Improving the Retention and Graduation of Minorities in Engineering, edited by R.B. Landis, Published by the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, New York, 1985.

    "Retention of Students in Engineering A Report to the Legislature in Response to Senate Concurrent Resolution 16 (1985)," California Postsecondary Education Commission, Sacramento, California, December 1986.

    Landis, R.B., "Retention by Design: Achieving Excellence in Minority Engineering Education," National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, New York, 1991.

    "Findings and Recommendations From the Report of the Task Force on the Engineering Student Pipeline," Engineering Education, p. 778-780, May 1988.

    Astin, Alexander, "Involvement: The Cornerstone of Excellence," Change, July/August 1985.

    Landis, R. B., "Academic Gamesmanship: Becoming a 'Master' Engineering Student," National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, New York, 1988.


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