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Long-Term Impact of an Elective, First-Year Engineering Design Course

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

First-Year Programs Division Technical Session 4A: Retention Programs and Strategies

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First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


W. Jackeline Torres Rice University

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W. Jackeline Torres received her Master of Education and Human Resource Studies from Colorado State University. She is currently a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at Rice University. Her research interests include examining the factors that impact people’s achievement in academic and work settings.

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Ann Saterbak Rice University

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Ann Saterbak is Professor in the Practice in the Bioengineering Department and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in the School of Engineering at Rice University. Saterbak was responsible for developing the laboratory program in Bioengineering. Saterbak introduced problem-based learning in the School of Engineering and more recently launched a successful first-year engineering design course taught in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. Saterbak is the lead author of the textbook, Bioengineering Fundamentals. Saterbak’s outstanding teaching was recognized through university-wide and departmental teaching awards. In 2013, Saterbak received the ASEE Biomedical Engineering Division Theo C. Pilkington Outstanding Educator Award. For her contribution to education within biomedical engineering, she was elected Fellow in the Biomedical Engineering Society and the American Society of Engineering Education.

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Margaret E. Beier Rice University

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Margaret Beier is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Rice University in Houston, TX. She received her B.A. from Colby College, and her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Margaret’s research examines the predictors of performance in educational and occupational settings. In particular, she is interested in the effects of examining gender, age, ability, personality, motivation, and self-regulation on a range of outcomes. She is a member of the American Educational Research Association and a Fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychologists.

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This evidence-based practice describes the impact on retention of implementing an elective, first-year engineering design course. Authentic, client-based projects form the focus of a one-semester freshman design course at Rice University. The course is an elective course available for all freshman students in the School of Engineering. During the course, first-year students learn the engineering design process and use it to solve meaningful problems drawn from local hospitals, industry, local community partners, Rice University, and international partners.

The course was designed to meet two high-level objectives in the School of Engineering: (a) to have students learn and practice the engineering design process early in their engineering education, and (b) to increase undergraduate retention in engineering at Rice University by 10 percentage points.

In regards to the first objective, student teams design a product that meets user-defined needs and realistic constraints. Student teams move through the steps of the engineering design process from problem clarification to iterative prototyping. Students communicate with the client and instructors through written reports and oral presentations. Teams are typically composed of four to six students and are expected to work together effectively.

Begun in the spring 2011 with 20 students, the course has been offered every semester since. Course enrollment by academic year is 81 students in 2011-2012, 86 students in 2012-2013, 136 students in 2013-2014, and 125 students in 2014-2015 (total 448). In this study, retention rates in engineering were evaluated for engineer starters who had or had not taken the course.

Students who matriculated in the School of Engineering were considered to be engineer starters if they had earned or attempted at least six STEM credits during their first semester. Credits were determined by summing incoming test score course credit (e.g., AP credit) and attempted course credits in STEM. This resulted in a sample of 867 engineer starters who matriculated in Fall, 2010, Fall, 2011, or Fall, 2012.

Engineering retention was defined as graduating or being on track to graduate with a degree from the School of Engineering. A stratified sample was used to match course enrollees and course non-enrollees on observed characteristics, which were gender, URM status, and academic preparedness. There was an 86% retention rate for engineer starters who had taken the course compared to a 74% engineering retention rate for engineer starters who had not. A chi-square test of independence was performed to examine the relationship between taking the course and obtaining an engineering degree (yes or no). This relationship was significant [χ2(1) = 6.59, p = 0.01]. Engineer starters who took the course were more likely to persist in engineering than engineer starters who did not.

Our aim is to continue to examine the role of engineer starters’ early academic experiences, including participation in project-based courses, on retention. Future work will broaden both predictors and outcomes. In particular, we plan to assess engineer starters’ attitude toward STEM (e.g., interest, self-concept, self-efficacy) and academic performance and retention. Future work will include pre-tests and post-tests to control for pre-existing differences in attitude and interest by course enrollment. We will also examine the impact of other early academic experiences on retention, including research experiences and participation in other courses with hands-on learning components.

Torres, W. J., & Saterbak, A., & Beier, M. E. (2016, June), Long-Term Impact of an Elective, First-Year Engineering Design Course Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25575

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