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Engineering Attrition: Student Characteristics And Educational Initiatives

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1999 Annual Conference


Charlotte, North Carolina

Publication Date

June 20, 1999

Start Date

June 20, 1999

End Date

June 23, 1999



Page Count


Page Numbers

4.229.1 - 4.229.12

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Paper Authors

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Charyl Delaney

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Alejandro Scalise

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Larry J. Shuman

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Harvey Wolfe

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract


Engineering Attrition: Student Characteristics and Educational Initiatives

Larry J. Shuman, Cheryl Delaney, Harvey Wolfe, and Alejandro Scalise University of Pittsburgh

Mary Besterfield-Sacre University of Texas – El Paso


Roughly fifty percent of the students who begin in engineering leave the field before receiving their engineering degree. Typically half of this attrition occurs during the first year. Its causes may vary widely from student to student (e.g. disinterest in the field of engineering, lack of fundamental preparation, lack of confidence to succeed). However, before we can develop more effective initiatives to reduce this high rate of attrition, we must first determine its underlying causes. As a result of an in-depth analysis of the attrition and retention issues at one school, several curricular and evaluation-based efforts have been introduced that are aimed at improving retention not only at the freshman level, but also at the sophomore and junior levels. This paper discusses results from the in-depth analysis and provides an overview of the curricula and evaluation changes made. We also suggest additional methods to examine.


The problem of engineering student retention has received considerable national attention. At the University of Pittsburgh, we have been addressing the retention issue from several perspectives for the past six years. Our efforts have been augmented by three research grantsa, which have enabled us to focus on the retention of freshman engineering students. As a result, we have developed several tools, which are being implemented both by us and by colleagues at other universities. We also have introduced a number of promising initiatives.

While our efforts offer the potential of reducing attrition, in the long run we believe that we must do much better in fulfilling the expectations and needs of our students. To do this means seriously addressing the “structure” and “culture” of the engineering educational experience, and developing additional creative solutions that will facilitate the desired structural and cultural changes. Seymour and Hewitt most emphatically documented the need for such changes [1] in their comprehensive six-university study of students who switched out of science, mathematics and engineering programs. They concluded that those problems arising from the structure of the educational experience, and the culture of the discipline (as objectified in the attitudes and practices of faculty) have a far greater impact upon attrition than do problems of personal inadequacy, aptitude for other disciplines or the appeal of other majors.

a This work is sponsored by National Science Foundation grants DUE-9254271 and EEC-9872498 and Engineering Information Foundation grant EiF 98-4.

Delaney, C., & Scalise, A., & Shuman, L. J., & Wolfe, H. (1999, June), Engineering Attrition: Student Characteristics And Educational Initiatives Paper presented at 1999 Annual Conference, Charlotte, North Carolina.

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