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How Important is the WOW Factor in First Year Engineering Courses?

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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

FPD 7: First-Year Engineering Courses, Part II: Perceptions and Paradigms

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

23.669.1 - 23.669.14



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Paper Authors


Thalia Anagnos San Jose State University

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Thalia Anagnos is a professor in the General Engineering Department at San Jose State University, where she has taught since 1984. She is the current coordinator of the Introduction to Engineering Course. Her research interests are in the areas of structural engineering, earthquake loss estimation and risk analysis, engineering education, and informal education.

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Burford J. Furman San Jose State University

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Burford "Buff" Furman has been on the faculty in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at San José State University since 1994. Prior to coming to SJSU, he worked at IBM in San José in the development of disk drive actuators and spindle motors. He has also worked as a consultant in the optomechanical and laboratory automation industries. His areas of teaching and research are primarily focused in mechatronics, precision machine design, engineering measurements, and programming. He was one of the faculty members who redesigned the E10 Introduction to Engineering course in 2007.

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Ping Hsu San Jose State University

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Dr. Ping Hsu graduated from University of California, Berkeley in 1988 with a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering. After graduation, he joined the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He joined the Department of Electrical Engineering at San Jose State University in 1990. His research areas include control theory, electrical machine control, power electronics, and wind turbines control.

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Patricia R Backer San Jose State University

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Dr. Backer is Director of General Engineering at San Jose State University. Her research interests are in broadening the participation of women and URM students in engineering and assessment of engineering programs.

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How Important is the WOW Factor in First Year Engineering Courses?This paper discusses the effectiveness of using projects with a “wow factor,” that is, engagingand challenging hands-on projects, in a freshman engineering course to motivate studentretention and persistence in engineering. Our course enrolls approximately 700 students per yearin a lecture/laboratory format. Our university, a large comprehensive public university in thewest, has offered a freshman introduction to engineering course since 1992. In its original form,the course was part of a lower division engineering core, required of all engineering majors, andfocused on computational skills (spreadsheets and MATLAB).In 1997, based on faculty and student feedback, a task force was formed to redesign the course tomake it more motivating for first year students, incorporate projects that introduced students tothe design process, provide opportunities to practice teamwork and communication skills, andprovide support in academic success and professional development. The course included threedesign projects but most of the design work and teamwork was done outside of class. Projectsincluded disassembling a household object and describing the components, a penny launcher, arubber-powered flying machine, and a balsa-wood bridge. These projects all used materials thatstudents could easily find around the house or at a local grocery store, making the projects easilyaccessible. One the other hand many were similar to projects students had done in high schoolscience courses. Assessments indicated gains in student knowledge about and positive attitudestowards engineering as a career. These results were reported in a 2002 ASEE FIE paper. Gainswere significant in knowledge areas (ranging from 1 to 1.6 on a five point scale for most areas);however the changes in attitudes were very modest. There was virtually no impact on students’perceptions about engineering as an a) exciting profession, b) challenging profession, c)profession that contributes to society, or d) profession in which people design products.In 2007, a new task force was convened to review the course. At the time 20% to 50% of ourengineering freshmen (depending on gender and ethnicity) were not persisting in engineeringinto the sophomore year. Furthermore, the course was not filling its intended purpose, as 30% ofthe students in the class were students who had waited until their junior or senior year to take it.At the same time the College of Engineering received a large donation from an alumnus that wasused to renovate two rooms specifically for team-based projects in the freshman course. Thisenabled the college to expand the scope of the projects to team-based, multi-week, multi-disciplinary, challenging projects that students work on in a well equipped dedicated lab.A multi-disciplinary team of faculty designed a series of projects that engage students in multiplesteps of the design cycle including brainstorming, conceptualizing, building, testing, evaluating,revising, and finally, communicating their design outcomes both orally and in writing. One ofthe projects has students design a 3D solid model of a rotor/blade assembly for a wind turbineand then build it using a rapid prototyping machine. In this project, they also mount the bladeassembly and a small dc motor used as generator on top of a tower that they also have designedand fabricated. They must experimentally determine the stiffness of the tower, and measure thepower output of the turbine under different electrical loads. In another project, students build acircuit board to detect infrared signals, and then design, build and program a robot that uses thecircuit board to complete a specified set of tasks.This is where the wow factor comes in. Most students have never soldered, used a drill press,anemometer, tachometer, or dial meter, or even sawed a piece of wood. Most have never seen arapid prototyping machine and are very excited about actually touching and using an object thatthey designed on the computer. While an ever increasing number of students have done somerobotics in high school, few have ever built and programmed a circuit board to control theirrobot. Students also get excited about working with solar cells, and discovering their lowefficiency rating. In 2010 the College was awarded an NSF grant to add aspects of sustainabilityto the class. The course now puts more emphasis on energy sources, life cycle analysis,recycling, and the water- energy nexus.Currently, retention rates from freshman to sophomore year have increased to close to 90%, andthe College wanted to determine factors that are contributing to this gain. This study used thesame pre-post assessment used in 2002 to evaluate student gains in attitudes and knowledgeabout engineering as a career to compare the effectiveness of this new version of the course tothe previous version. In addition, to better understand impacts of the sustainability content andthe more involved design projects, a survey was administered to students who completed thecourse during the previous 18 months. We still see significant gains in knowledge but also higherinterest in engineering and a much better understanding of the importance of effective teamwork.While a study of this type cannot fully evaluate the effectiveness of this course in the overallretention increase, this paper presents the results of the two sets of assessments and providesobservations about the effectiveness of the “wow factor.”

Anagnos, T., & Furman, B. J., & Hsu, P., & Backer, P. R. (2013, June), How Important is the WOW Factor in First Year Engineering Courses? Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia. 10.18260/1-2--19683

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