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Language or Problem-formulation Difficulties? An FE Exam Experiment in a Hispanic Setting

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2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Columbus, Ohio

Publication Date

June 24, 2017

Start Date

June 24, 2017

End Date

June 28, 2017

Conference Session

Minorities in Engineering Division Technical Session 4

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Minorities in Engineering

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Paper Authors


Juan C. Morales P.E. Universidad del Turabo

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Dr. Juan C. Morales, P.E., joined the Mechanical Engineering Department at Universidad del Turabo (UT), Gurabo, Puerto Rico, in 1995 and currently holds the rank of professor. Dr. Morales was the ABET Coordinator of the School of Engineering for the initial ABET-EAC accreditation of all five programs at UT. He has been Department Head of Mechanical Engineering since 2003. His efforts to improve teaching and diffuse innovative teaching and learning practices derive directly from the outcomes assessment plan that he helped devise and implement as ABET Coordinator.

Address: Department of Mechanical Engineering, Universidad del Turabo, PO Box 3030, Gurabo, Puerto Rico, 00778.

Tel. 787-743-7979 x 4182


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This paper describes and discusses the results of an experiment that was conducted by the author in a course that trains mechanical engineering students to pass the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) Exam. The FE Exam, created and administered by the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES), is exactly the same in Puerto Rico as in the mainland USA. Passing the FE Exam is one of the requirements for professional licensure in engineering. The experiment took place in a required training course that is part of the mechanical engineering curriculum at a private university in Puerto Rico where the student population is essentially 100% Hispanic, i.e., Spanish is their first language. The primary objective of the experiment was to differentiate between language difficulties (the FE Exam is in English) versus weaknesses in formulating a problem. The motivation for the experiment stemmed from the fact that the passing rates in the FE Exam in Puerto Rico are approximately half than the national average reported by NCEES, which typically reports a national average passing rate for first-time exam takers of approximately 75%, including the exam takers from Puerto Rico. The language issue has been suspected as a probable cause for the lower passing rates in Puerto Rico. The author has also suspected difficulties in problem formulation. The experiment was designed to capture each of these two issues independently. The results showed that 100% of the students (n=27) were able to correctly and fully translate the problem from English to Spanish. Although it is only one experiment, the results suggest that the issue of the English language is not as critical as originally hypothesized. On the other hand, only 48% of the students were able to correctly formulate the given problem. This may turn out to be an important finding because, if this sample is representative of the entire population’s capacity to formulate, then a passing rate ceiling of 50% is predicted. The capacity to formulate is at the heart of passing the FE Exam. The process of formulating a problem requires critical thinking skills, i.e., to be able to discern the true from the false and know the reasons why. In particular, students must fully understand the concepts so that they know when to apply them (and when not to apply them) in a problem. This skill is encompassed in ABET Outcome E: The ability to identify, formulate, and solve an engineering problem. The paper fully describes the problem, the questions that were asked, and the structure for grading this problem, which was part of a class exam. The paper also talks about some of the misconceptions that students showed in their responses. The author hopes that this paper will stimulate discussion among educators of Hispanic engineering students who, perhaps, have noticed similar patterns in their engineering courses.

Morales, J. C. (2017, June), Language or Problem-formulation Difficulties? An FE Exam Experiment in a Hispanic Setting Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28605

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