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Work in Progress: Improving First-Year Retention Through Support and Engagement

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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

First-Year Programs: Tuesday 5-Minute Work-in-Progress Postcard Session

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First-Year Programs

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Paper Authors


Petra Bonfert-Taylor Dartmouth College

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Dr. Petra Bonfert-Taylor is a Professor and an Instructional Designer at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. She received her Ph.D. in Mathematics from Technical University of Berlin (Germany) in 1996 and subsequently spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan before accepting a tenure-track position in the Mathematics Department at Wesleyan University. She left Wesleyan as a tenured full professor in 2015 for her current position at Dartmouth College. Dr. Bonfert-Taylor has published extensively and lectured widely to national and international audiences. Her work has been recognized by the National Science Foundation with numerous research grants. She is equally passionate about her teaching and has recently designed and created a Massively Open Online Course “Analysis of a Complex Kind” on Coursera. Her teaching was recognized through the awarding of the Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching at Wesleyan University and the Excellence in Teaching Award at the Thayer School of Engineering. Dr. Bonfert-Taylor has a strong interest in broadening access to high quality higher education and pedagogical innovations that aid in providing equal opportunities to students from all backgrounds.

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Vicki V. May Dartmouth College

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Vicki V. May, Ph.D., P.E. is an Instructional Professor of Engineering at Dartmouth College. Her research focuses on engineering education and K-12 outreach. She teaches courses in solid mechanics, structural analysis, and design at Dartmouth. Prior to relocating to the east coast, Professor May was an Associate Professor of Architectural Engineering at the California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

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Holly Wilkinson P.E. Dartmouth College

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Alicia Betsinger Dartmouth College

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Drop-out rates of engineering students are amongst the highest of all STEM majors, with the drop-out rate for women exceeding that for men. Becoming an engineering major requires students to spend significant amounts of time and effort building up their knowledge base in mathematics, physics, chemistry and computation. As a result, many students on our campus do not take actual engineering classes until their sophomore year. The prerequisite mathematics and science courses for the engineering major are amongst the leading causes for drop-out, which tends to make drop-out occur early on in engineering programs (often before students have had the chance to take a single engineering class). Based on our data, women and underrepresented minority students are disproportionately affected. We suspect that this is because these student cohorts often exhibit lower levels of confidence in their mathematical abilities leading them to the conclusion that they are 'not good enough' to succeed in mathematics classes.  This is despite the fact that they perform equally well to their classmates.

At our home institution we are engaged in a comprehensive analysis of data concerning the engineering drop-out phenomenon. We are exploring remedies that would help those students persist who want to be engineers but feel that they may not be academically successful enough to do so. Through a crowd-sourcing campaign we are soliciting ideas from our entire engineering student body as well as faculty and staff that might help improve the first-year student experience. Through several phases (ideation, commenting, expert review, pairwise comparison) we will select new ideas which we will subsequently implement and test.

We are analyzing data from four separate cohorts of students to understand more completely what sequence of events tend to lead a student to drop out of engineering. A sampling of questions we would like to answer includes: amongst women and members of underrepresented groups does it take a few bad experiences or is it the first poor grade in a mathematics class that leads a student to drop out? Does this differ between traditionally represented men and women/members of underrepresented groups? Is there a level of high school mathematics preparation that instills enough confidence in all students so as to be able to counteract a bad experience in a college mathematics class? Additionally, we are surveying students in open response form to complete our picture.

Concurrently we have developed a new program, targeted at first-year students interested in engineering, that aims to support these students through their prerequisites, both academically and emotionally. The purpose of the program is to improve the first-year experience of students entering our school who profess an interest in engineering. A key part of the program is that we provide high-level and high-quality support and mentoring to these students in the form of nightly group study sessions, advising, and exposure to engineering opportunities. We target especially those students whose academic background may not be as strong as that of others in order to ensure they gain a solid academic foundation prior to beginning engineering courses. We are collecting data in order to be able to answer questions such as:  What can we do to better support first-year aspiring engineering students? How can these students be better integrated into life at our school? How can we retain students’ interest in engineering through this foundational period of study?

Initial statistics indicate that a higher proportion of female/underrepresented aspiring engineering students are signing up than traditionally represented male students: for example, over 60% of our self-selected participants are female. This data aligns with the above-mentioned observation that women and underrepresented minorities tend lack confidence and underestimate their mathematical abilities. They are therefore seeking out more help and support than their classmates. We are hoping to observe a higher retention rate amongst these students than amongst those who entered our school with an interest in engineering but did not self-select to participate in our program.

Bonfert-Taylor, P., & May, V. V., & Wilkinson, H., & Betsinger, A. (2017, June), Work in Progress: Improving First-Year Retention Through Support and Engagement Paper presented at 2017 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Columbus, Ohio. 10.18260/1-2--29162

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