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Impact of First-Year Programming for Underprepared Students

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2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Tampa, Florida

Publication Date

June 15, 2019

Start Date

June 15, 2019

End Date

October 19, 2019

Conference Session

First-Year Programs: Focusing on Student Success

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Petra Bonfert-Taylor Dartmouth College

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Petra Bonfert-Taylor is a Professor and an Instructional Designer at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. She received her Ph.D. in Mathematics from Technical University of Berlin (Germany) in 1996 and subsequently spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan before accepting a tenure-track position in the Mathematics Department at Wesleyan University. She left Wesleyan as a tenured full professor in 2015 for her current position at Dartmouth College. Petra has published extensively and lectured widely to national and international audiences. Her work has been recognized by the National Science Foundation with numerous research grants. She is equally passionate about her teaching and has recently designed and created a seven-MOOC Professional Certificate on C-programming for edX, after previously having designed a MOOC “Analysis of a Complex Kind” on Coursera. The recipient of the New Hampshire High Tech Council 2018 Tech Teacher of the Year Award, the Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching at Wesleyan University and the Excellence in Teaching Award at the Thayer School of Engineering, Petra has a strong interest in broadening access to high-quality higher education and pedagogical innovations that aid in providing equal opportunities to students from all backgrounds.

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Alicia Betsinger Dartmouth College


Holly Wilkinson P.E. Dartmouth College

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Holly Wilkinson is Assistant Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. She previously served as Director of Career Services at Thayer School, Director of Recruitment at Colorado School of Mines, and Director of Engineering Admissions at Norwich University. She holds a Master of Business Administration from Norwich University and a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from Union College.

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Ray Helm Dartmouth College

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Yanmin Zhang Dartmouth College

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Pritish Ponaka Dartmouth College

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This Complete Evidence-Based Practice paper addresses an intervention started at our school two years ago aimed at improving the first-year experience and retention of underprepared students in the engineering major.

Background and Motivation

The percentage of students from underrepresented groups earning degrees in engineering remains low nationally (NSF, 2015). Women earned close to 60% of all bachelor’s degrees in 2012 but less than 20% of those degrees were in engineering (NSF, 2015). And Hispanic, Native American, and African American students combined earned less than 14% of the engineering degrees in 2012 (ASEE, 2014), though they comprised over 30% of the population (NSF, 2015). The retention rate at our engineering school for women (58%) has been slightly higher than the rate for men (54%); however, the rate for minority students is lower (46%) while the lowest rate is found among female minority students (40%). Here, a student is “retained” in engineering if they matriculate with an interest in engineering and ultimately declare an engineering major. Campus data also showed that the majority of students who were initially interested in engineering but subsequently switched out did so after poor performance in a prerequisite mathematics or science course in their first year; hence they left the engineering program often before they had the chance to take a single engineering class.

During the summer of 2016 we launched a new program, aimed at supporting underprepared students through their prerequisites, both academically and emotionally. The program was designed after interviewing many students, both those who persisted and those who left engineering, researching programs at other schools, and building upon our prior experience. One of the components of the program consists of drop-in consultation sessions that are offered nightly during a 3-hour window. The main program goals include an increased retention rate in engineering amongst underprepared students and the creation of meaningful relationships and networks for these students within their engineering experience.

Methods and Assessment Results

The assessment methods utilized include tracking analysis, survey, retention rates and GPA. Data sources are: 1) Online attendance logs for consultation sessions; 2) Qualtrics survey; and 3) data from our student information system.

Persistence rates in engineering were examined for the first two cohorts of students in our support program (that is, students who matriculated with an interest in engineering and who participated in our program during academic years 2016-17 or 2017-18.) Since a large proportion of these students have not yet declared their major, we define “persistence” in engineering in the following way: If the student enrolled in any engineering, mathematics, computer science, physics or chemistry course during the fall term of their sophomore year they were counted as retained in engineering. We furthermore identified a comparison cohort who matriculated during the academic years 2014-15 or 2015-16 (but who did not benefit from our program) and analyzed their persistence rates in the same way.

Results indicate that students who utilize our program (as indicated by attendance at two or more consultation sessions) have a higher persistence rate (75%) than those who chose not to participate. The persistence rate of those students who chose not to participate (60%) was lower than that of the comparison cohort (66%).

Demographic analysis of program participants indicates:

* 61% of participants are underrepresented minority students * Women persist at higher rates than men (79% vs 71%)

Future work will include an analysis of why invited students choose or choose not to participate in the support program as well as design of new outreach programs directed at the non-participating students.

ASEE (2014). Going the Distance: Best Practices and Strategies for Retaining Engineering, Engineering Technology, and Computing Students.

NSF (2015). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering 2015. National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences.

Bonfert-Taylor, P., & Betsinger, A., & Wilkinson, H., & Helm, R., & Zhang, Y., & Ponaka, P. (2019, June), Impact of First-Year Programming for Underprepared Students Paper presented at 2019 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Tampa, Florida. 10.18260/1-2--32932

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: © 2019 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