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Improving Student Engagement and Outcomes in First-year Engineering Courses at a Highly Diverse, Multicultural Urban University

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2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


San Antonio, Texas

Publication Date

June 10, 2012

Start Date

June 10, 2012

End Date

June 13, 2012



Conference Session

FPD V: Increasing Engagement and Motivation of First-year Students

Tagged Division

First-Year Programs

Page Count


Page Numbers

25.749.1 - 25.749.11



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Paper Authors


Katherine S. Zerda University of Houston

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Kathy Zerda is the Director of the Program for Mastery in Engineering Studies (PROMES), the multicultural learning community for undergraduates at the Cullen College of Engineering. She also directs the UH Women in Engineering program. Zerda is an Instructional and Research Assistant Professor for the college and serves as the Faculty Advisor for the student chapters of the Society of Women Engineers and the Society of Mexican American Engineers and Scientists. Before joining the University of Houston, Zerda worked as an Engineering Manager for Hewlett-Packard Company. She earned a bachelor's of science degree from the University of Notre Dame, her Ph.D. from Baylor College of Medicine, and a master's in business administration from Mays Business School at Texas A&M University. Zerda represents the University of Houston on the board of the Texas Alliance for Minorities in Engineering (TAME) and serves as current Board Chair.

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Diana G. de la Rosa-Pohl University of Houston

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Diana de la Rosa-Pohl has been a lecturer in the Cullen College of Engineering at the University of Houston since 2003. She has worked with the PROMES program to develop project-based learning courses for the first-year curriculum. Currently, she is developing and evaluating project-based multidisciplinary courses for the engineering honors program.

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Stuart A. Long University of Houston

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Stuart A. Long was granted B.A. and M.E.E. degrees in electrical engineering from Rice University, Houston, Texas, in 1967 and 1968, respectively, and a Ph.D. degree in applied physics from Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., in 1974. He joined the faculty at the University of Houston, and served as Chairman of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering from 1984 to 1995 and as Associate Dean of the College of Engineering from 1995 to 2008. He was Interim Dean of the Honors College in 2008-2009. He also serves as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Research and the Honors College, and in this role oversees the undergraduate research programs for the entire campus. He is a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and a registered Professional Engineer. In 2010-2011, he served as Interim Vice Chancellor/Vice President for Research and Technology Transfer.

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Fritz J. Claydon University of Houston

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Improving Student Engagement and Outcomes in First Year Engineering Courses at a Highly Diverse, Multicultural Urban UniversityThe college of engineering at our large urban university serves a diverse population of studentsincluding many first-generation-in-college students, and many from groups traditionallyunderrepresented in engineering fields. Nearly 40% of new students are transfer students, and amajority of students commute to campus. Students generally must work to finance theireducation. As a result, four-year graduation rates are low, especially among African Americanand Hispanic students. In recognition of the unique needs of this population the collegemaintains a multicultural support community to provide a success framework to help studentspersist to graduation. Participation in this community is voluntary and participants are expectedto enroll in a freshman course sequence that includes introductory engineering course contentalong with content related to general academic success and personal skills development.In 2005 faculty from the multicultural engineering program and from the honors engineeringprogram worked together to create new introductory engineering courses for use by both learningcohorts. The new curriculum emphasizes Project-Based Learning (PBL) and the role of peermentors in the classroom. Peer mentors are students who are typically engineering sophomoresor juniors. Each peer mentor guides 12-15 students, helping with project work and personalskills development. Peer mentoring underpins the learning community framework and aimsprimarily to address the issue of isolation often felt by students, especially minority and first-generation-in-college students. This multifaceted approach for entering freshman and transferstudents generates enthusiasm and a feeling of shared purpose and belonging.In fall 2006 the redesigned curriculum was implemented for the first time. In addition, theacademic year was launched with an orientation event that featured a mandatory one-day studyskills workshop. Principles of the study system were incorporated into the new engineeringcourse structure and reinforced by the peer mentors throughout the year. The orientation eventwas repeated in the next fall semester for a new group of incoming students. Students who hadpreviously attended the program served as peer mentors for the new group and also were enlistedas peer mentors for a new pilot project that further emphasized the learning system components.Students in the pilot program met weekly outside of class with peer mentors to reinforce theprinciples of the learning system and to provide a level of accountability in using the system.The goal of this pilot was to closely monitor students as they incorporated the study methods intotheir daily routine and to measure the impact of the learning system on GPA and overall successof those students who participated in the project. Our initial cohort in the pilot programnumbered 43 students. The average cumulative GPA of this group at the end of the pilotacademic year was 3.19, compared with an average GPA of 2.61 for their classroom peers whodid not participate in the pilot. We continue to encourage students to use the learning system andwe have recently expanded the fall semester orientation event to include professional andpersonal development topics for upper division engineering students as well as the content fornew students.Students who entered as freshmen in fall 2006 are now beginning to graduate. We havecompared outcomes for students who experienced a PBL-approach to freshman engineering withpeers from traditional introductory engineering lecture courses. Four-year data suggest thatretention and graduation rates for students in the PBL cohorts are nearly 10% higher than thoseof their non-PBL counterparts. This data is encouraging and aligns with published educationalresearch which suggests strongly that engaging students in meaningful hands-on projects early intheir engineering curriculum promotes enthusiasm about the major and enhances persistence andstudent success. Students report positive experiences with the project-based introductoryengineering courses. Course evaluations show that students enrolled in PBL courses over thepast five years gave an average rating of 4.24 out of 5.00 points when asked to evaluate “Overallquality of the course”. Their non-PBL counterparts rated their introductory engineering courseson average 3.75 out of 5.00 points for the same metric.Our program of providing Project-Based Learning and emphasis on a system of learningstrategies continues. GPA results demonstrate that these strategies make a difference in studentsuccess. The average end-of- year cumulative GPAs of five consecutive cohorts of freshmenwho participated in these interventions have been trending upwards over the past five years.While the general population of freshmen engineering students end their first year with anaverage GPA near 2.6 (consistent over the past five years), cumulative GPA averages forstudents in our study cohorts have now reached an average GPA of 3.1.

Zerda, K. S., & de la Rosa-Pohl, D. G., & Long, S. A., & Claydon, F. J. (2012, June), Improving Student Engagement and Outcomes in First-year Engineering Courses at a Highly Diverse, Multicultural Urban University Paper presented at 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--21506

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