Same Problem, Different Solutions: Attempts at Improving Retention in Engineering at a Research vs. a Teaching University

Donald C. Woolston
Karina Shook
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Joanne Wilson
University of Wisconsin-Platteville


Two campuses in the University of Wisconsin system (UW-Madison and UW-Platteville) have recently attacked the problem of sub-optimal retention of students who enter engineering as first-year students. At both locations, independent analyses of students' reasons for leaving were conducted during the past two years, and efforts made to reduce the number of students who leave engineering degree programs shortly after entering.

While it is too early to evaluate the long-term success of any of these efforts, it is productive to compare the approaches at these two universities, one of which is a large, research-oriented institution, and the other a smaller, teaching-oriented campus. This paper contrasts the data obtained on students' reasons for leaving engineering at these two schools, and the freshman-level introduction to engineering courses implemented at each to help improve retention. It also raises the question of what retention goal we are seeking in engineering education.


For engineering educators, retention of engineering students, as measured by the percentage of students who start as freshman engineering students and eventually graduate with an undergraduate engineering degree, is a sensitive issue. Recent emphasis on quality issues (for example, Deming's ideas on improving processes to reduce costs through fewer defects) and equity issues have contributed to the concern for why so many bright, capable students entering engineering leave so quickly. The phenomenon is well documented in the landmark study ``Talking About Leaving'' by Seymour and Hewitt [1]. A conclusion of that report is that each institution should examine its own set of factors for why students leave its engineering program, and take appropriate action.

Two Wisconsin engineering programs have taken that advice. Indeed, they are very different institutions. The Madison and Platteville campuses of the University of Wisconsin System, located within 100 miles of one another in the southern half of the state, have in common that they offer undergraduate degrees in engineering. Otherwise, they have different missions: UW-Platteville is a teaching-oriented institution offering degrees in civil, electrical, industrial and mechanical engineering. UW-Madison is a research-oriented university offering 10 different undergraduate degrees, with corresponding masters and doctoral programs. They also share a concern for improving retention, in that only about half of students who enter either program finish with an engineering degree. Both have recently studied why their students leave engineering, and instituted first-year courses designed to improve retention.

This paper describes the results of those studies, contrasts the courses that have resulted, describes how these efforts are being evaluated, and comments on an often neglected aspect of the retention-in-engineering issue: what is optimal retention of engineering freshmen? Since both the surveys and freshman courses were developed independently, the results are not always directly parallel, but they are suggestive of both similarities and differences in the approaches appropriate for teaching vs. research engineering programs.

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville

The University of Wisconsin-Platteville has the second largest undergraduate-only engineering program in the United States-approximately 1500 students. In the fall 1994 semester, the freshman engineering class was 337 students, 96%of whom reported that they were white. Women made up 14%of the class, which was up from the previous year's figure of 10%. The average composite ACT score of the freshman engineers was 24.6 with an average math ACT of 25.7 Twenty-five of the students placed first or second in their high school graduating class. Only 12%of the freshman engineers were from the five county region in southwestern Wisconsin surrounding Platteville.

Typically, 55%of the freshman engineering students graduate from the engineering programs. Another 25%of the freshman engineering students who begin at UW-Platteville graduate from the university in other majors. In November of 1992, the General Engineering Department began an exit survey for those students changing their major. The results of this survey are still being analyzed; however, they identify some common concerns of the students leaving the engineering program. A total of 148 responses have been tabulated since late 1992. The responses are as follows:

The exit interview form also asked students if they thought that they were properly advised prior to entering engineering; 80 or 55%indicated that they had. About the same proportion thought that they knew what engineering was before entering the program. About a third thought they were pressured into trying engineering, and of those, about half felt pressure from parents.

Platteville's Freshman Course

In early 1992, engineering faculty identified retention of freshmen as an issue which should be addressed in their strategic plan. At about that time, Joanne Wilson, Assistant Dean of Engineering, was asked to participate in an NSF project on engineering freshman retention which was funded by Ray Landis, Dean of Engineering at California State University, Los Angeles. The members of the project, entitled ``Improving Student Success Through a Model `Introduction to Engineering' Course,'' were asked to participate in the design of a freshman orientation course which addressed the five objectives Dr. Landis had used to create a successful minority engineering program at Cal Sate L.A. These five objectives were Community Building, Academic Success Strategies, Personal Development, Professional Development, and Orientation. After meeting with the project participants, Dr. Wilson designed and offered two pilot sections of General Engineering 101, Introduction to Engineering, a one-credit course based on the Landis model. In the design of the course, Dr. Wilson aimed to address some of the critical issues raised by the survey results. By acknowledging engineering as a challenging yet rewarding profession, Dr. Wilson alleviated students' concerns regarding the time demands of the engineering curriculum. Stressing the importance and role of mathematics in their engineering courses helped the students maintain the focus necessary to succeed in their mathematics courses. Encouraging a sense of community among the course participants allowed the students to develop important relationships between their peers and their instructors. These relationships provide an alternate support network when academic advisors are not available. Success of the engineering course is not only measured by retention of the engineering students, but also by providing a mechanism with which students can make informed decisions about better-suited career options.

Student reaction to the pilot course was positive and in the Fall 1994 semester, every freshman engineering student was required to enroll in the course. Course requirements include short homework and in-class assignments, attendance at campus functions including student organization meetings, performance at the Center for the Fine Arts, and an engineering senior design presentation, weekly journals, an interview of a faculty member, a group project and presentation, and class attendance and participation. Each week, students are introduced to different topics including word processing, spreadsheets, using e-mail, the UW-Platteville engineering disciplines, laboratory tours for each major, the general education requirements of UW-Platteville, methods in computation, significant figures, learning styles, successful methods of studying, engineering ethics, using the library, involvement in the engineering student organizations, Counseling and Placement Services, advising and registration, solving simultaneous equations, and the UW-Platteville Women in Engineering Program.

After the fall 1994 semester, evaluation of the course showed that the students enjoyed the diversity of topics and assignments of the course; however, an introduction to a greater variety of computer use was suggested. Subsequently, GE 102, a two-credit course, will be required of all future engineering freshmen. Extra topics will include further use of spreadsheets, and introduction to applications software such as MathCad and TKSolver, and some engineering problem solving/design.

The effect of the GE 101 requirement on the retention of engineering freshmen has not yet been measured. However, faculty members involved in teaching the course are positive regarding their interaction with young, enthusiastic engineering freshmen. In particular, they have discovered that the students have the opportunity to develop important relationships with faculty from the professional engineering programs at an earlier stage in their academic career.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

UW-Madison, one of the five largest universities in the nation, has about 3200 undergraduate engineering students. Each fall, it admits between 700 and 800 new freshmen to the College of Engineering. These students are typically well prepared; the fall class had mean ACT composite scores over 27, and about 80%graduated in the top 20%of their high school class. About 70%were from Wisconsin, 23%from other states, and 7%from other countries.

Over the last five years for which the college has data, six-year graduation rates for students who entered the college as freshmen and graduated with an engineering degree have hovered around 45%; the overall graduation rate of students who entered as engineering freshmen from the university (just under 70%) is similar to or above the university-wide rate.

Until recently, faculty expressed more concern for effective enrollment control-making sure too many students did not enter engineering departments-than for increasing retention. However, paralleling the UW-Platteville experience, since 1992, that emphasis has changed, and more attention has been paid to freshmen, leading to a survey of the reasons freshmen left engineering, and a new freshman engineering course.

The survey was undertaken by engineering senior Karina Shook as an independent studies project. She devised a mail survey that she sent to 244 students (20%female) who left the pre-engineering program in 1993, either to transfer to another program on campus or because of academic difficulty. Forty of these students responded, 15 females and 25 males.

About 70%said they knew what engineering was about before enrolling, and 80%felt that they had attained an understanding by the time they left. Upon arriving on campus, many of the respondents found engineering to be more difficult than expected. Several wished for more hands-on courses; many left the college without ever taking an engineering course.

The question of just why students left was the heart of the survey. Students were asked ``What were the major factors in your decision to leave the College of Engineering?'' and asked to rate a series of possible factors on a scale from 0 to 10. For both women and men, more than half identified these three as important factors:

``Another major was a better fit for my interests''

``The required courses were uninspiring''

``I couldn't achieve the GPA I wanted''

Several students felt that engineering involved too much studying, and about one third of the respondents listed inability to get help of some kind as a factor in their leaving. Factors such as a desire to finish in four years; financial, personal or homesickness problems; and not being well-prepared academically were less commonly cited.

One thing that stood out from all else in this survey was the students' lack of involvement in engineering student organizations (only 5 of the 40 respondents had joined any organizations at all). Of course, it is difficult to determine if their reluctance to become involved with other engineering students was a cause or an effect of their dissatisfaction with engineering.

Madison's Freshman Engineering Course

Totally independent of Ms. Shook's spring 1994 survey, a group of engineering faculty interested in improving teaching in the college began meeting in the spring of 1993. They concluded that the freshman year experience was one area of instruction where the college could most be improved. With funding through a National Science Foundation Grant to Professor Denice Denton, they devised a new two-credit Introduction to Engineering Design course, after consultation with faculty developing similar courses at, among other places, the University of Colorado, University of Maryland, and Rose-Hulman. Offered as a pilot in fall of 1994, the course was designed around these outcomes for students who enrolled:

The project undertaken by the class of 64 students was to design wheel chair access for Old World Wisconsin, a historical site with over 40 buildings. Senior engineering students played a major role in instruction, and seven faculty took part in both lectures to the entire class and leadership of smaller lab sections. Significantly, student teams were asked not only to design, but also to build a prototype of their design. Other topics covered in lecture included planning skills, evaluation of ideas, liability and ethics, intellectual property and patents, and communication skills in engineering projects.

The outcome of the class is currently being analyzed by an independent third-party educational assessment unit on campus [3]. Preliminary results show that of the 64 students, 53 are still interested in engineering. Because so many students asked that more career orientation material be included, the class is being offered to approximately 200 students for an additional credit in 1995-1996, to allow for substantially more information on engineering disciplines and student opportunities. Interviews with students from the pilot class show that they most appreciated teamwork opportunities and the involvement of engineering faculty.. This student quote is typical: ``This was probably my favorite class. . .so that kind of gives you an incentive to keep going through all of those hard classes. . .It was nice to meet some of the professors too. It kind of makes you feel like you already have a place here.''


The reasons for leaving engineering at Platteville and Madison, and the new freshman courses implemented at these institutions, show interesting similarities and differences. The most common reason for leaving either program was simply that students had found a better major. More probing questions may be necessary before accepting this reason at face value.

Students who left engineering at Platteville had in common with those at Madison that they found the subject matter hard, with mathematics a particular problem. However, students at Platteville were much more likely to cite lack of high school preparation as a reason for leaving, while Madison students were more likely to cite lack of academic support as a problem.

The courses designed to help increase retention at the two institutions have in common the obvious fact that they are at the freshman level. The question of whether they might be even more appropriate at the high school level is one that needs closer examination. One of the authors (dcw) is principal investigator for a National Science Foundation grant [4] that emphasizes the need for all high school counselors, teachers, students and the students' parents to be more informed of post-secondary options, including technical and vocational training. Such awareness appears to be a way to increase retention, in that entering students would know what engineering education entails before they begin.

Another similarity is the emphasis on faculty involvement. Interestingly, the gulf between freshmen and faculty appears to be a problem at both the teaching and research institution. It may prove to be a more intractable problem at Madison, however; when external funding isn't as plentiful, it will be a challenge to continue such a high level of faculty involvement, which students have indicated as critical to the success of the Madison course.

Differences in content and philosophy of the courses that evolved at the two institutions reflect some external factors. First, because Platteville had no freshman orientation class of any kind in 1993, GE 101 emphasized orientation topics. Madison has had a one-credit professional orientation course for several decades, and the students' comments make clear that much of that course (especially information on the various engineering disciplines) should be incorporated in the new freshman course. Plans are proceeding to make that transition.

Given the high level of concern for retention in engineering, at Wisconsin institutions as well as others across the nation, it seems odd that the basic issue of ``What is optimal retention?'' has received so little attention. If engineering educators use only a manufacturing metaphor to examine the issue, then the conclusion that quality education entails a 100%graduation rate is inescapable. We submit that a broader frame of reference may be more appropriate. Choice of majors by entering freshmen reflects many developmental processes; the student who leaves engineering when 19 is not the same student who entered the university at 17. Furthermore, as with any other choice such as which person to marry, which job to take and which car to buy, choice of majors (and certainly choice of careers) is a process, not an irreversible event. We are all in the process of making new choices and re-examining old ones; therefore, we see 100%retention of engineering freshmen as both an unlikely and unreasonable goal.


There is no simple answer to why students leave engineering, nor is there a simple answer for preventing it. As H. L. Menken said, ``There is always an easy solution to every human problem: neat, plausible, and wrong.'' Students at a teaching-oriented university have different needs than those who attend a larger research-oriented program. It is therefore appropriate that the response to those needs, in the form of different freshman-level introduction to engineering courses, should be different. A related issue, the optimal goal for retention of engineering undergraduates, deserves closer attention. Clearly, the answer is ``more:'' many of the reasons students now cite for leaving engineering should be disturbing to engineering educators. Students should not leave feeling that they were overmatched; nor should they leave feeling that they needed more academic support; nor should they leave because they entered engineering solely on the basis of misguided adolescent dreams of an easily attainable, high-paying job. Most importantly, they should not leave because of lack of attention from engineering faculty too absorbed with upper division courses, research or graduate students. Although it is clear that 100%retention is an unlikely goal, it is also clear that more attention to freshman is a key to better retention.


  1. Seymour, E. and Hewitt, N. Talking about Leaving: Factor Contributing to High Attrition Rates Among Science, Mathematics and Engineering Undergraduates. Boulder, Colorado: University of Colorado.

  2. Denton, D., ARPA support through the National Science Foundation Grant #ECD-872155.

  3. Courter, S. First Semester Evaluation Report of Introduction to Engineering a Freshman Design Course. 1995: LEAD Services Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

  4. Woolston, D., Schmidt B. and Hart, S. National Science Foundation Grant #TPE-9253248.
Tue Oct 3 16:56:54 PDT 1995