Wisconsin engineering: Support, retain and grow

Posted on 10. Dec, 2012 by in Beyond Boundaries, Gift Report, In Depth, Students

Dean Paul Peercy

College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy. Photo: David Nevala

When I joined the UW-Madison College of Engineering as dean in 1999, I was determined to address a persistent problem: Too many students who begin undergraduate life aspiring to be engineers end up leaving engineering. As I look back on nearly 14 years of college leadership, I can say confidently that we’re turning that problem around in Wisconsin. Our talented faculty and staff developed and implemented a comprehensive plan to enhance the first-year experience, dramatically expand tutoring support, increase hands-on opportunities and wisely integrate technology to improve the learning experience and the engineering education our students receive.

The result has been that far more of our students are getting the help they need when they need it to stay on course toward a truly rewarding and high impact profession. We have a foundation in place to ensure that the next leader of this great college can oversee continued success.

Retaining our aspiring engineers is increasingly important as the nation and the world needs more engineers. The engineering profession faces an unprecedented growth opportunity. America severely needs more engineers to stay competitive with emerging economies. That’s why a 2012 presidential panel on jobs recommended that engineering colleges produce an additional 10,000 engineering and computer science graduates each year.

We’re doing our part through some significant increases in enrollment capacity. We have grown from roughly 3,200 undergraduates in 2006 to 4,100 students in fall 2012. Through our differential tuition program, we have made essential investments in core courses and labs to meet student demand. Our current growth projections suggest we will reach up to 5,000 undergraduate students by 2016.

The important number is not how many students we enroll, but how many we move successfully along the path to graduation. Our “grow from within” strategy, through the use of innovative retention programs, is second to none among engineering programs nationally. Our graduation rate for students who enter an engineering degree program (typically by their sophomore year) is 85 percent.

The college Undergraduate Learning Center (ULC) is one of the biggest contributors. Last year, more than 2,200 students used ULC for drop-in tutoring and 320 students enrolled in supplemental instruction workshops. They received help on more than 20 introductory and intermediate math and science courses—the courses that frustrated past aspiring engineers and pushed them toward alternative careers.

We also made substantial improvements to our advising process. Required advising begins prior to the freshman year and is repeated before each semester. Students encounter a registration hold that is lifted only after a sit-down advising session, where staff can identify problems early enough to be corrected.

It is equally important to inspire students early to the tremendous potential and promise of engineering. We have a slate of freshman courses built around hands-on, real-world design problems that give students an early taste of working with clients and in teams. We’ve made big investments in engineering shops and design spaces, giving students every opportunity to turn academic knowledge into tangible solutions.

Another major advance has been our deployment of technology to improve student learning and become more efficient with our increased student enrollment. We are on our way toward a goal of converting 75 percent of engineering core course to blended formats. That means “inverting” the traditional classroom—putting lectures and homework online and freeing classroom time for interactive discussion.

Thinking back to 1999, my top priority was pretty simple and it hasn’t changed today: Prepare the next generation of engineers for success in a rapidly changing world. That’s different than simply producing more engineers. It means maximizing the potential of every aspiring engineer who comes through our doors.

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