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Getting Engineering Students to Stay the Course

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2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Atlanta, Georgia

Publication Date

June 23, 2013

Start Date

June 23, 2013

End Date

June 26, 2013



Conference Session

First-Year Programs (FPD) Poster Session

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.638.1 - 23.638.25



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Paper Authors


Robert Silverstein University of California, Los Angeles

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Robert Silverstein is president of management consulting firm The Brentwood Kensington Group, Inc. Mr. Silverstein founded BKG after a long and successful career as an executive leader in defense, aerospace, technology and the U.S. Government.
Mr. Silverstein served as the vice president of Advanced Design and Business Development for the highly classified Northrop Grumman B-2 Bomber Program and later as the vice president and general manager of the corporation’s electronics divisions in Calif. and New York. He led the restructuring of these design, development and manufacturing organizations; substantially reducing operating and overhead costs and increasing productivity and profitability.
He joined Northrop to establish and lead the Washington D.C based Northrop Analysis Center, a unique “think tank” providing international strategic and marketing analysis as well as consulting services to the corporation.
Mr. Silverstein began his engineering career at TRW, where he held various engineering and program management positions. While at TRW, he became an expert in satellite systems and was recruited to support the director of Central Intelligence. He was responsible for the oversight and evaluation of data collection, processing and analysis systems. When George Bush, Sr. became the director, Mr. Silverstein became his advisor on Satellite Systems.
For more than fifteen years Mr. Silverstein’s consulting firm has identified and implemented process and operating performance improvements in client companies; addressing the full spectrum of company operations including: organization development, hardware and software engineering, manufacturing, information technology, finance, procurement, logistics, factory planning, and new product development.
Mr. Silverstein personally assists many clients by providing “Chief Executive” services. When he is not actually performing as chief executive, he mentors, coaches and advises company management on leadership, management and business strategy. He develops corporate strategy, assists in developing business and strategic plans and assists in acquiring financing. He often identifies and recruits executives and identifies candidates for client Boards of Directors as well as personally serving on client boards. Mr. Silverstein works with Private Equity Firms by performing operational due diligence on potential acquisitions, recommending value enhancing change, and facilitating or implementing the transformation as a chief executive after the acquisition is complete.
He has served in many consulting and advisory roles for the U.S. government, including the National Academy of Science, the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Defense Science Board. Mr. Silverstein also served on the Transition Team for President Reagan.
In addition to his consulting, Mr. Silverstein teaches courses in engineering career skills for undergraduate students at UCLA. His courses cover the subjects of leadership, teamwork, management, communication, and ethics. His goal is to orient students to the skills and experience they will need for a successful engineering career. His courses have dramatically increased the percentage of students who remain in the School of Engineering, leading to the development of an internet program to expand the access to this unique Engineering Career Skill material.
Mr. Silverstein received his Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Master of Science degree in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at New York University.

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Getting Engineering Students to Stay the CourseAbstractWith national average undergraduate engineering dropout rates (to other majors)of 30% to 50%, something is certainly wrong. It seems to be conventionalwisdom that the high dropout rate is the fault of the students; concluding that theycan’t (or don’t want) to endure the workload of an engineering curriculum.Based upon my work with Engineering Seniors at a large University with a highachieving, internationally diverse student population, I concluded that they are farfrom lazy. Many are frustrated and discouraged for one simple reason: theirengineering curriculum does not focus on what engineers do when they work.They simply don’t know what engineers do. If you tell them and then show them,I hypothesized that they would stay in engineering.While I have only been teaching for a short time, I have had a long and verysuccessful career as a practicing engineer, engineering manager and executive inhigh tech industry and government spanning decades. Five years ago I beganteaching a course focused on Engineering Career Skills and Ethics to engineeringseniors. I found that many of the topics covered in this senior course would havebeen much more valuable to lower division students; helping them to focus someof their decisions on what they would need in their future engineering careerswhile they had time to act on them. I proposed a ten week, twenty hourEngineering Career Skills course for lower division undergraduate engineeringstudents called ”What students need to know about careers in engineering.” Thecourse has now been given to over 800 students and is required for undeclaredengineering freshmen. The dropout rate, historically 25-30% at my university, hasbeen cut to just 6% among students who have taken the course. What’s more,over half of the students that did switch from engineering, switched to otherScience, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) majors. Only 3% switchedout of STEM altogether.The course focuses on teaching students what they will actually do in theirengineering careers, what they need to do to be successful, and the skills that willbe needed beyond the technical skills of their engineering major. Students areassigned to teams which group them with students from many differentdisciplines and backgrounds. The course is Pass/No Pass. There are no tests andno grades, but there are a large number of collaborative team assignmentsdesigned to illustrate the skills and strengths required of a successful careerengineer. Students are intentionally grouped in heterogeneous teams of variedbackgrounds, years in school and, especially, majors. Emphasis is placed on theinterpersonal and leadership struggles of a multi-discipline team problem solvingeffort. While students get no grades, there are measures of relative performanceand peer reviews which inform them how they are doing relative to the rest of theclass. Augmenting the class lectures, guest lecturers are brought in to describehow their careers unfolded; what was important and what they have learned.Reaction from students is extremely positive. A common quote is: “allengineering students should take this course.” Many lament that they didn’t take itearlier. While the course was originally geared to lower division students, it isopen to all students in the University. It is interesting to note that approximatelyone third of the students who take it are upper division students. There are evengraduate students who take the course.The course is not intended to “sell” students on a career in engineering, but ratherto reinforce their personal decision and rational for enrolling in engineering in thefirst place. It was structured to give students a framework that would help them tounderstand what their engineering curriculum and coursework provides. Coursecontent is also included to identify for them the responsibility they have to roundout the career enhancing skills of multi-discipline teamwork, collaboration,communication, leadership, program management processes, and interpersonalskills through their choices of extra-curricular activities and multi-disciplineprojects.

Silverstein, R. (2013, June), Getting Engineering Students to Stay the Course Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19652

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