Asee peer logo

An Active Learning Environment to Improve First-Year Mechanical Engineering Retention Rates and Software Skills

Download Paper |


2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Paying Attention to Retention

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count




Permanent URL

Download Count


Request a correction

Paper Authors


Benjamin B. Wheatley Colarado State University

visit author page

Benjamin Brandt Wheatley was awarded a B.Sc. degree in Engineering from Trinity College (Hartford, CT, USA) in 2011. He spent one year in industry at a biomedical device company before returning to graduate school. He is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Colorado State University (Fort Collins, CO, USA). His engineering education areas of interest include cultural competency, active learning approaches as they relate to software skills, and how "soft skills" project to success as engineers. His areas of technical research include finite element analysis and skeletal muscle mechanics.

visit author page


Tammy Lynn Haut Donahue Colorado State University

visit author page

Tammy Haut Donahue joined the faculty at Colorado State University (CSU) in December of 2011. She came to CSU after spending eleven years in Mechanical Engineering at Michigan Technological University. Her PhD was in Biomedical Engineering from the University of California at Davis where she earned the Allen Marr Award for distinguished dissertation in Biomedical Engineering in 2000. She is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering and an Editorial Consultant for the Journal of Biomechanics. She is Chair of the Orthopaedic Research Society Meniscus Section, and is a member of the Bioengineering Executive Committee for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Dr. Haut Donahue’s research includes analytical and experimental biomechanics of the musculoskeletal system with ongoing research in orthopedic biomechanics and post-traumatic osteoarthritis. An emphasis is put on prevention, treatment, and repair of injuries to the soft tissue structures of the knee, focusing primarily on the meniscus. With over $15 million in funding from Whitaker Foundation, CDMRP, NIH, NSF, as well as industrial sponsorship her research program has had more than 60 mentees and has national collaborations with Michigan State and Mayo Clinic as well as international collaborations with Trinity College Dublin and Queens University Belfast. Dr. Haut Donahue has more than 65 peer-reviewed publications and is current Associate Department Head for Undergraduate Studies for the Mechanical Engineering Department at CSU. Dr. Haut Donahue was awarded the Ferdinand P. Beer and E. Russell Johnson Jr. Outstanding New Mechanics Educator Award from the American Society of Engineering Education for exceptional contributions to mechanics education. Dr. Haut Donahue is a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

visit author page


Kimberly Catton P.E. Colorado State University

visit author page

Professor of Practice
Mechanical Engineering

visit author page

Download Paper |


This Complete Research paper describes a change in the curriculum of a First-Year course to address retention rates in the College of Engineering at Colorado State University. There is a major concern over the fact that the graduation rate within the college is consistently under 50%. Addressing First-Year retention rates is the first step in improving this long term figure. In addition, based on industry feedback there is a lack of software proficiency amongst graduates. This includes computational tools such as Matlab, which is a commonly utilized programming and analysis package in engineering. This work proposes a curriculum change from traditional lecture to an active learning environment in a First-Year Introduction to Mechanical Engineering course of 145 students. The goal of this approach is to improve First-Year student retention rates and computational capabilities in Mechanical Engineering with a single broad emphasis.

Multiple changes throughout the course, from specific day to day in-class activities to the addition of laboratory sessions, are utilized. Class time emphasizes student engagement, including team design problems such as building the tallest structure from a single piece of paper in fifteen minutes. Another example to engage students in unit conversions and unit introductions is asking the question “what is a Joule?”. This is answered with hands-on activity where students feel the weight of a softball and raise it against the force of gravity, requiring roughly one Joule of energy. In place of one day of traditional lecture, once a week laboratories are delivered focusing on software skills such as Microsoft Excel and Matlab, providing students with hands on learning opportunities. These laboratories of no more than fifteen students are delivered by Learning Assistants, which offers one-on-one time with a peer-assistant, encourages an educational community, and develops the leadership and educational skills of the Learning Assistants themselves. The laboratories also present an additional space to work on “soft skills” such as oral presentations in a less intimidating environment. This peer learning model along with variations in teaching style and active engagement aims to support students who are at a high risk of dropout, transfer out of the college, or fail to properly learn software tools.

To evaluate proposed improvement in retention and proficiency, multiple evaluations will be utilized. A concept inventory will be conducted after completion of the course. This inventory will be used to compare the Matlab proficiency between two goups: students who were taught content in a lecture only environment (n=73), and students who were taught with a laboratory component (similar projected sample size). Additionally, the midterm scores from a Matlab based course which follows this introductory course will be compared for these two groups. Finally, both groups of students will be surveyed to reflect on their educational experience in Introduction to Mechanical Engineering as it relates to proficiency with computational tools, general understanding of course content, and anticipated graduation. The overarching goal of this work is to better provide students with the means to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, and more importantly, succeed as professional mechanical engineers.

Wheatley, B. B., & Haut Donahue, T. L., & Catton, K. (2017, June), An Active Learning Environment to Improve First-Year Mechanical Engineering Retention Rates and Software Skills Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--27546

ASEE holds the copyright on this document. It may be read by the public free of charge. Authors may archive their work on personal websites or in institutional repositories with the following citation: © 2017 American Society for Engineering Education. Other scholars may excerpt or quote from these materials with the same citation. When excerpting or quoting from Conference Proceedings, authors should, in addition to noting the ASEE copyright, list all the original authors and their institutions and name the host city of the conference. - Last updated April 1, 2015