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The Transition From High School Physics To First Year Electrical Engineering: How Well Prepared Are Our Students?

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

STEM Pipeline: Pre-College to Post-Baccalaureate

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.1273.1 - 13.1273.17



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Paper Authors


Chris Smaill University of Auckland

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Chris Smaill holds a Ph.D. in engineering education from Curtin University of Technology, Australia, and degrees in physics, mathematics and philosophy from the University of Auckland. For 27 years he taught physics and mathematics at high school level, most recently as Head of Physics at Rangitoto College, New Zealand's largest secondary school. This period also saw him setting and marking national examinations, training high-school teachers, and publishing several physics texts. Since the start of 2002 he has lectured in the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering at the University of Auckland.

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Elizabeth Godfrey University of Auckland

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Elizabeth Godfrey is currently the Associate Dean Undergraduate at the School of Engineering at the University of Auckland after a career that has included university lecturing, teaching and 10 years as an advocate for Women in Science and Engineering. She has been a contributor to Engineering Education conferences, and an advocate for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning since the early 1990s, and is currently a member of the Australasian Association of Engineering Education executive.

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Gerard Rowe University of Auckland

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

The transition from high-school Physics to first-year Electrical Engineering: How well prepared are our students?


The demand from industry for an increasing number of engineering graduates in New Zealand reflects international concerns and is compounded by a decrease in the size of the well-prepared school-leaver pool. For growth in graduate numbers to occur, it is recognized that a more diverse, potentially less-well-prepared student cohort will challenge engineering educators to respond effectively via curriculum, assessment and teaching methods to optimize success and retention at first year.

A preliminary evaluation of the first (2007) cycle of a two-cycle action-research project is presented in this paper. This project aims to identify the level of preparedness the student cohort brings to a year-one course in Electrical and Digital Systems, to determine key factors that lead to success in this course, to measure the effectiveness of remedial and support mechanisms, and to audit the content and assessment of the course itself. The course, compulsory for all first-year engineering students has long been perceived as “difficult”, with a higher fail rate than other first-year courses, and somewhat of a “gatekeeper” for passage to the discipline-specific final three years.


Despite New Zealand’s reputation for innovative technology and its status as a developed country with a relatively high standard of living, amongst the OECD countries it has the lowest proportion of its university graduates in engineering. A potential mismatch exists between the increase in the number of engineering graduates demanded by industry and the profession 1 and the decrease in the number of final-year high-school students studying physics and other engineering-specific pre-requisite subjects.

The low proportion of engineering graduates might be viewed as a local problem, but it echoes the situation in much larger, more industrialized, and resource-rich countries such as the United States. The sharp increase over the last 15 years in research investigating academic success and persistence within engineering programs has been identified by French, Immekus and Oakes 2, as being linked to a declining interest in engineering amongst graduating high-school students and low completion rates by students entering US universities as engineering majors. The freshman (first) year has been seen as critical 3 for both academic success and retention of engineering students.

From the student “voices” provided by Seymour and Hewitt 4, to the indicators of success and persistence based on theoretical and empirical evidence from both cognitive and non- cognitive variables 2, a wealth of data has been accumulated to guide curriculum design and program development.

It is known that strong academic background, achievement of good grades, and academic motivation are needed for students to persist in their engineering studies. If, as it has been suggested, “the only significant predictor of graduation with an engineering degree was high- school GPA” 5, then efforts to enlarge the potential pool of applicants will be severely challenged. It is recognized that if engineering educators are to respond to industry calls for

Smaill, C., & Godfrey, E., & Rowe, G. (2008, June), The Transition From High School Physics To First Year Electrical Engineering: How Well Prepared Are Our Students? Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--3202

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