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Project Based Learning in an Introduction to Civil Engineering Course: A Cascade Effect on Student Engagement and Retention in Subsequent Years

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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

Innovative Pedagogies for Facilitating Student-driven Learning Experiences

Tagged Division

Civil Engineering

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David Brian Dittenber LeTourneau University

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Dr. David Dittenber is an assistant professor of civil engineering at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas. He earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering at LeTourneau and spent a year teaching high school math and science. He then attended West Virginia University, where he earned his master's and doctoral degrees in civil engineering, with a research focus on the use of composite materials in infrastructure. Dr. Dittenber chose to return to his alma mater to teach, largely because of LeTourneau's reputation of being a hands-on, undergraduate-centric, teaching-focused engineering program.

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In the spring semester of 2014, a new course was introduced specifically targeting freshman civil engineering students as a discipline-specific alternative to the general engineering course traditionally offered to all freshman engineering students. The course included a variety of components involving equipping students with relevant skills (experimentation, technical writing and communication, technical drawing and computer aided drafting), an overview of professional engagement (history of civil engineering, path to licensing, ethics, role of civil engineers on projects, current career options in civil engineering), and a major project. The major project for the course involved teams of 3-4 students working to design one of two civil engineering challenges: either a 20-foot cantilevered wooden bridge or a 25-foot diameter wooden tripod, each capable of holding loads of up to 1500 lbs. Fundamentally, there were two purposes to the course: students were to learn more about their specific discipline so as to establish realistic goals and motivations for their education and career, and students were to complete a major project in order to develop teamwork skills, personal identity within the program, and confidence in their ability to overcome intimidating challenges. These initiatives were intended to improve student engagement with the course, the civil engineering program, and the wider field of civil engineering, as well as to improve student retention.

With regard to student retention, since the inception of the Introduction to Civil Engineering course, 77% of students completing the course have opted to continue with the civil engineering program. However, of those who returned to the civil engineering program after taking the course in 2014 or 2015, 100% have since either graduated from the program or advanced to junior or senior status and are currently on track to graduate from the program within four or five years of enrolling. For comparison, prior to the addition of the course, only 79% of students who had taken the general freshman course and were enrolled in the program for their sophomore year went on to graduate from the program. This indicates a significant impact the course appears to have had on upper-classmen retention. With regard to student engagement, student perceptions about the impact the course had on their engagement with the program and wider field of civil engineering are collected through a brief survey and compared to perceptions collected from students who took the general engineering course instead. Anecdotal evidence has suggested that the course has not only become a favorite experience for students, but also a significant factor in future engagement for many students. Perceptions from the survey are compared between current seniors, juniors, and sophomores to determine cascading effects as a result of the course. This paper will include a succinct course overview with descriptions of sample projects, a summary of quantitative and qualitative data collected through student surveys, and recommendations for future project-based introductory courses.

Dittenber, D. B. (2017, June), Project Based Learning in an Introduction to Civil Engineering Course: A Cascade Effect on Student Engagement and Retention in Subsequent Years Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--28767

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