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Work in Progress: Engineering Invisible Mountains! Mental Health and Undergraduate-Level Engineering Education: The Changing Futures Project

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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


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Educational Research and Methods

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Jane Andrews Aston University

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Dr Jane Andrews is currently a Senior Lecturer in Engineering Education at the School of Engineering & Applied Science, Aston University, UK. The only Sociologist in the UK to hold a lectureship in Engineering, Jane's research interests include all aspects of engineering education with a particular focus on elementary level engineering education and gender issues within engineering.

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Robin Clark Aston University

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A “Work in Progress”, the ‘Changing Futures Project’ aims to directly tackle an issue that has been long reported in both academic and professional body spheres, that of student failure in engineering education. In the first year of the Project, 1368 Engineering & Applied were sampled and 96 identified as being at risk of failure. Utilising Action Research Methodologies a number of proactive interventions were put in place and later evaluated. Thus far, the Project has proved to be a great success with all but 3 of the 96 previously ‘failing’ students progressing to the next level of their academic journey.


There exists a substantial corpus of literature examining issues around ‘retention and success’ within the UK Higher Education Sector. Such literature reflects the complex nature of student failure and suggests that in engineering education there is a link between what is taught in schools and issues of retention and attrition at undergraduate level. Other variables include university pedagogic practice, gender, ethnicity and social class. Yet whilst the wider issues around retention and attrition have been widely discussed within engineering education literature there is little work on the individual nature of student failure. In seeking to address this the ‘Changing Futures’ Project seeks to understand individual student perspectives and in doing so positively change individual student prospects.


Using ‘data trawling’ and ‘student analytics’ methodologies, the records of 1368 students were accessed and data disaggregated so as to identify those students who were at risk of failing their course and being asked to leave the university. In total, a group of 96 students (7%) were identified as being at ‘high risk’ (having failed one or more modules on two occasions). Having identified the key areas in which the students were struggling, a number of academic and practical resources were developed and distributed. Each individual student was invited to participate in a one-to-one ‘future planning’ meeting whereupon a bespoke ‘action plan’ was put into place. The 1st year of the Project was evaluated following the summer examination period. The Project is now in the early stages of its second year.


Thus far the study has highlighted an outwardly ‘hidden’ but widely acknowledged issue, that of mental health problems amongst undergraduate students. Over half of the sample self-identified as having a mental health problem for which they had sought medical or psychological support. Few of these had reported this to the university. Other issues identified as impacting the student experience ranged from bullying, to family and financial problems. In discussing the findings the paper considers the academic and social context of the individual student experience. It provides a detailed analysis of the reasons why students perceive they fail and considers this within the context of the wider literature. In doing so it makes a unique contribution to debates about student support and success in engineering. The paper concludes by suggesting that in an era ‘massification’ it is easy for vulnerable students to slip through the net. The question of what can be done is addressed and a number of recommendations for global engineering education made.


Andrews, J., & Clark, R. (2017, June), Work in Progress: Engineering Invisible Mountains! Mental Health and Undergraduate-Level Engineering Education: The Changing Futures Project Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--29155

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