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  • Student Development:

    An Alternative to "SINK OR SWIM"

    by Raymond B. Landis

    California State University, Los Angeles
    Los Angeles, California



    No one would argue that engineering education is undergoing dramatic change. Old familiar paradigms that do not seem to be working any longer are giving way to new patterns. One of the most welcome paradigm shifts is the shift from the view that the role of engineering education is to "weed out" students who do not meet "our" standards to the view that our role is to develop the talent of the students that we admit into our programs.

    There are many reasons why this shift from the "sink or swim" approach to one of "student development" is occurring. Primary perhaps is the assessment movement in which educational institutions are being held more accountable for their productivity. As we have been forced to examine our effectiveness, we have become increasingly aware of the deficiencies of our educational system. Rather than blame the "customer," we are beginning to "blame" ourselves. Through the work of individual engineering faculty, coalitions of engineering colleges, or special programs for minority and woman students, we have identified a variety of educational strategies and approaches that have proven effective in enhancing engineering student success.

    This paper focuses on one of these strategies - an orientation course for freshman engineering students titled "An Introduction to the Study of Engineering." This type of course has been the cornerstone of effective minority engineering student retention programs and has more recently been refined and implemented for the broader engineering student population at thirteen universities through an NSF Undergraduate Curriculum and Course Development grant.


    The first step under the NSF project was to survey engineering colleges to establish a baseline regarding "Introduction to Engineering" freshman orientation courses. The hypothesis of this study was that most engineering programs have no such course and that where such courses do exist they are content focused, with little or no student development objectives.

    This hypothesis was borne out by the survey. One-third of engineering programs do not offer any "Introduction to Engineering" course. Of the two-thirds that offer courses, most focus primarily on content in the areas of engineering graphics and computing. Virtually none have "student development" as a primary objective. As an example, of the courses offered, forty-six percent do not address the topic of academic success skills. Another forty-five percent devote between five and fifteen percent of the course to this topic. Only two percent of the courses devote as much as twenty-five percent of the course to teaching students how to be effective in the study of mathematics, science, and engineering.

    There are several reasons why "Introduction to Engineering" courses focus primarily on content and ignore the potential for student development. Our faculty reward system does not provide incentives for the best engineering faculty to seek involvement with the freshman year curriculum. Most engineering faculty are more comfortable teaching content in their area of specialization 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 lack of textbooks or other curricular material that focus on engineering student development.


    The survey was also used to identify a group of faculty and academic staff to participate in the project. One of the survey questions was:

    Would you be interested in working collaboratively with faculty from several universities to develop a "model" curriculum for an Introduction to Engineering course and implement that curriculum and measure its impact on student academic performance and retention?

    The response was overwhelmingly positive indicating a growing interest in and recognition of the value of "Introduction to Engineering" freshmen orientation courses. Of the respondents that indicated they have an Introduction to Engineering course, 53 percent indicated that they would definitely be interested in working with the project. Perhaps more revealing is that 43 percent of those respondents that indicated they have no course expressed interest in working with the project to develop and implement such as course.

    Based on the survey, one or two faculty members from each of thirteen universities was selected for participation in the project. These universities are listed below along with the participating faculty. Each of these faculty represent an excellent resource for anyone interested in developing such a course.

    University Faculty Participant(s)
    Colorado School of Mines Ron Miller
    Cal State L.A. Ken Dozier & Milton Randle
    University of Arizona Morris Farr
    Northern Arizona Univ David Hartman
    Cornell University Richard Lance
    FAMU/FSU College of Engr Soro Nnaji
    Northern Illinois Univ Joy Pauschke
    University of Louisville J.P. Mohsen
    University of New Mexico Jeanine Ingber & Ricardo Maestas
    Tri-State University Tom Enneking
    Oklahoma State University Tim Greene
    Univ of Wisconsin-Platteville Joanne Wilson
    South Dakota School of Mines Dan Gerbec & Dale Skillman

    The faculty met for a three day workshop in November, 1992. As part of the workshop, the following five major themes were agreed upon for the focus of this project:

    Community building
    Academic success skills
    Personal development
    Professional development

    Behavioral objectives and outcomes were identified under each major theme and faculty agreed to develop resource materials in support of these activities which would be shared will all participants. Each faculty member also agreed to arrange to teach an "Introduction to Engineering" course in fall, 1993 and to handle all administrative details necessary to set up such a course. Each faculty member also agreed to develop a methodology for evaluating the impact of their course on student success.

    The faculty group met again in June, 1993 to review course objectives and to participate in a four day Student Success Course Workshop conducted by College Survival, Inc. The purpose of the workshop was to train teachers who present extended orientation, study skills, and other student success courses. Topics ranged from teaching methodology including active learning to how to gain administrative support for student success courses. Although the workshop was designed to prepare instructors to use the text Becoming a Master Student, much of what was learned would apply regardless of specific text used


    At the June, 1993 meeting, objectives for each of the five major course themes were developed. These objectives are outlined below:

    Community building -- Students in the "Intro to Engineering" course comprise a supportive, learning community.

    Socialization -- Each student in the class knows every other student in the class.

    Group building -- Students have a strong sense of group and are committed to a high level of mutual support.

    Human Relations Training -- Students have the interpersonal skills necessary to interact with each other in a positive and effective manner.

    Academic Success Skills -- Students know about and put into practice positive attitudes and productive behaviors that will result in academic success.

    Interaction with faculty -- Students interact regularly their professors, positively and with benefit.

    Interaction with peers -- Students make effective use of their peers by frequent sharing of information and regularly engaging in group study and collaborative learning.

    Campus resources -- Students are aware of and make optimal use of campus resources (e.g. writing center, counseling center, health center, library, placement center)

    Time on task -- Students manage their time so as to devote an appropriate amount of time and effort to studying and are operating under the principle that they master the material covered in each class period before the next class period comes.

    Time on campus -- Students are aware of the importance of being immersed in the academic environment so that they can take full advantage of the resources available to them and therefore spend as much time on campus as possible.

    Other study skills -- Students are aware of and practice good study skills in other areas (e.g. note taking, test taking, etc.)

    Personal Development -- Students have a good understanding of and feel good about themselves and their educational experience. Students interact well with and respect others, engage in good health and wellness practices, and effectively manage the various aspects of their personal life.

    Understanding of self -- Students' personality traits learning styles, and brain dominance have been assessed using standard instruments and they have a strong understanding of themselves as unique individuals.

    Self confidence and self esteem -- Student feel good about themselves, about their situation, and are confident about their ability to succeed academically.

    Self assessment -- Students have clear goals and have a plan for their personal development based on a self assessment of their strengths and weaknesses.

    Wellness and stress management -- Students engage in good health and wellness practices and know how to manage stress through stress reduction methods.

    Respect for and interaction with others -- Students value and respect differences in people and interact effectively with people of all cultures, ethnicities, and genders.

    Management of personal life -- Students are effective in managing the various aspects of their personal life including interaction with family and friends, personal finances, workload, etc.

    Professional Development -- Students are motivated by a clear understanding of engineering as a profession. Students conduct themselves ethically and in a professional manner at all times.

    Motivation -- Students are highly motivated through a clear understanding of the rewards and opportunities success in engineering study will bring to their lives.

    Understanding of engineering -- Students can give an articulate response to the questions "What is Engineering?" Students are aware of the various academic disciplines and job functions of engineering.

    Industry practice -- Students are aware of the various industry sectors (computer, aerospace electronic, utility, oil, large constructors, etc.) and of how engineers are utilized in each of these sectors.

    Professional student organizations -- Students recognize the value of actively participating in student organizations, particularly those related to their chosen profession (ASME, ASCE, IEEE, etc) and seek to take on leadership roles in those organizations.

    Ethics and professionalism -- Students are aware of good ethical and professional practice and engage in such practice at all times.

    Orientation -- Students understand how the engineering college and the university work and how to best take advantage of the resources available to them.

    College of engineering -- Students understand the organizational structure, facilities, resources, and regulations of the college of engineering and make effective use of them.

    University -- Students understand the organizational structure, facilities, resources, and regulations of the university and make effective use of them.


    In fall, 1993, each of the faculty participants delivered an Introduction to Engineering course at their university. Each is in the process of evaluating the effectiveness of their course in enhancing student success. Results are not yet available and will be published at a later date. As an example of one approach that is being used to evaluate course effectiveness, students complete the attached survey at the beginning and at the end of the course to assess the change in student attitudes and behaviors.

    Accomplishing the objectives listed above under the five major themes is a challenging task. Both course content and a teaching methodology must be developed. Unfortunately, text material that focuses on engineering student development is lacking. The NACME publication "Academic Gamesmanship: Becoming a 'Master' Engineering Student" can be used. Currently, a text titled Studying Engineering: A Road Map to a Rewarding Career is in preparation. Some ideas on both course content and teaching methodology can be found in Reference 2.

    The fundamental tenant of this paper is that our students can achieve much more than they do. By throwing them into a "sink or swim" environment, an environment for which many are not prepared, more than fifty percent "sink." Of even more concern is that many of those that do "swim," fall short of reaching their maximum potential. Through an "Introduction to Engineering" freshman orientation course which focuses on "student development," we can enhance the academic success of our students. The purpose of such a course is not to present more "content," but to provide students with the skills they need to succeed both academically and personally.


    This paper was partially supported by an NSF Undergraduate Course and Curriculum Development Program grant titled "Improving Student Success through a Model 'Introduction to Engineering' Course."


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

    Landis, R.B., "Improving Student Success Through a Model 'Introduction to Engineering' Course," Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, Toledo, Ohio, June, 1992.

    Ellis, David, Becoming a Master Student, Sixth Edition, College Survival, Inc., Rapid City, South Dakota, 1991.

    Landis, R.B., "Academic Gamesmanship: Becoming a 'Master' Engineering Student," National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering, New York, NY, 1987 (Reprinted 1992).

    Landis, R.B., Studying Engineering: A Road Map to a Rewarding Career, Discovery Press, 1995 (Distributed by Legal Books Distributing, 4247 Whiteside St., Los Angeles, CA 90063, Telephone: (213) 526-7110)


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