January 24, 2009

Engineering Education Journal Club: Talking About Leaving ch. 1-2

We've started a journal club for graduate students and faculty across the disciplines of math, engineering, and education. As part of this we're all blogging about the papers we read in order to compare notes on our perceptions of the literature. So if you aren't interested in this I'd suggest you skip this rather lenghthy post.

The purpose of the journal club is to learn about the "mathematics problem"... This is the perception that students who take upper division courses don't have the necessary math skills to do the work expected by problem. The words "mathematics problem" is in quotes because the perception of the problem is an anecdote from faculty, and the plural of anecdote isn't anecdata.

The first few meeting of our journal club are focusing on the book Talking About Leaving- why undergraduates leave the sciences. I read this excellent book some time ago, and am re-reading it for the journal club. The first thing that struck me was how carefully this research was done and how it was led by what students had to say about their experiences in STEM programs. It seems to me to be very foolish not to consider what this book, and the students quoted in it, has to say about higher education. This is particularly true since one of the most interesting things about TAL is that all their ethnographic data came from those with math SAT scores of 650 or higher (26 ACT or 86th percentile). This biases the data considerably for us at OSU , but I think it is good that it isn't possible simply to dismiss the results as arising from "inferior" students. As a data point in ECE our mean ACT score is about 27 with 25%-75% range of 25-31.

One of the first things that struck me as I was reading chapters one and two was the misperceptions that most of us in higher education have about our own students. For example TAL discusses the distinction between faculty perceptions of what they teach and student perceptions of what they have to learn. Faculty believe a certain percentage of students "can't get it" because the material is hard while students believe that with sufficient effort they should all be able to get it. What would a class look like that was designed to have all students earn an "A"?

Another point that struck me, given an official OSU e-mail I received last week saying all OSU TA's must take an English proficiency exam is the relative lack of importance being a good English speaker had compared to other factors. The English issue was even specifically identified as a misconception.

Another point from TAL that resonated with me was that students who switch from a major and those who stay are very similar in academic ability. It is the fact that we can't seem to maintain their interest in STEM that results in attrition. The comments by students about the lack of intellectual stimulation, the boredom, really resonated with me. I found science and engineering boring when I was an undergraduate too and, looking back, am not really sure why I stayed with it. I guess I read too many Heinlein books as a kid... So one question that comes to mind at this point is what stimulates students' interest in STEM in the first place? What can we change to maintain their interest? What are their expectations?

TAL (p. 35) also discusses that conceptual difficulties can lead to a downward spiral which eventually results in students leaving STEM majors. This seems to be a really critical issue to me, especially since it affects engineers more than other STEM majors. I see it as critical because my own experience teaching primarily upper-division undergraduates reinforces a belief that most students don't have a sound conceptual foundation. However one question I'm left with is what exactly is meant by the phrase "conceptual difficulties"? I hope this is better defined later on or we further explore this issue as our journal club progresses.

One of the other issues brought up in TAL that reinforces my own beliefs is the importance of intrinsic motivation in staying in STEM disciplines and how the experiences of the first two years can reinforce or destroy intrinsic motivation. There is an in-depth analysis of how various motivations--both intrinsic and extrinsic--affect whether students persist in STEM or not. From what I can tell it comes down at a basic level to college having meaning. I think Victor Frankl covers it best in Man's Search for Meaning. So an open question is again what do students find meaningful? How do you identify students who are intrinsically motivated to study engineering?

Near the end of the second chapter of TAL Seymour and Hewitt look at the impact of the lack of high school preparation and how shocked many students were at their lack of preparation. There seems to be a little bit of a disconnect here in the book. Is it a lack of preparation in high school or are the expectations in college simply too high? Is there really such a communication problem in expectations?

Another interesting note is the fact that many students have horrible study habits they learned in high school. I definitely include myself in this category. I can hardly even remember doing homework in high school! A very interesting insight is stated as " of the first group of students to be lost are those who have internalized the attitudes of teachers, parents, and peers who confuse talent with achievement." The whole discussion here really reinforces the belief I have that grades are harmful to students and we need to replace them with a more sensible solution. From TAL it is clear a sizable fraction (perhaps as large as 40%) take grades as personal criticism- either positive or negative.

So what do I draw from all of this? What impression am I left with? It seems clear that attrition isn't highly correlated with ability. Those who are more self-aware may be at greater risk for leaving engineering. We do a miserable job of explaining what engineers really do and what you can do with an engineering degree. I am not sure we really even know. It is also clear that while being able to do mathematics is necessary to succeed in engineering, self-perceptions of math ability for incoming freshmen are worthless. Also being competent in mathematics doesn't seem to be a great predictor of staying in engineering. The emphasis TAL places on conceptual understanding makes me believe that a course focusing on providing the conceptual foundation of how math in used in engineering with many hands-on projects would be a viable approach; particularly if study skills were also taught.

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