Micro-focusing an Argon-ion laser onto a graphene sample

Interdisciplinary team works to engineer success

A professor works with a group of students in a physics classroom. The students are writing on a whiteboard and using a calculator.
If an intervention being developed by an interdisciplinary team at Miami University proves effective, more engineering students may pass early physics courses, like this one taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Dilupama Divaratne.

According to a 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly half of students who begin pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math – the so-called STEM fields – drop out of that pipeline before earning a degree.

Among several factors the NCES cites is “performing poorly in STEM classes relative to non-STEM classes.” As a physics instructor at Miami University, Jennifer Blue has seen this firsthand.

Blue reports that while a majority of introductory engineering students at Miami pass their first-year physics classes, about 20% earn a “D,” “F,” or “W.”

“It makes us so sad when people fail our classes,” the associate professor says.

In part, that sorrow stems from the knowledge that an early negative experience is often enough to cause students to give up on the dream of becoming an engineer. That’s not what Blue wants.

It’s not what Brian Kirkmeyer wants either. As Assistant Dean for Student Success in Miami’s College of Engineering and Computing, it’s his job to help keep engineering students’ dreams alive.

“It serves no purpose for students’ dreams to be squashed,” he says. “That doesn’t get us more engineers and computer scientists. We want physics to be a course that sets students up for a successful STEM-based academic – and, ultimately, post-academic – career.”

Kirkmeyer’s sentiment is consistent with the goals of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Engineering Education program.

“The NSF knows that there’s a crisis in America with engineering, that we don’t have enough engineers, and that there are all sorts of places in the pathway to engineering where there are problems,” says Amy Summerville, who is the lead investigator on a $368,000 grant from the program.

In collaboration with Blue and Kirkmeyer, Summerville, an associate professor in Miami’s Department of Psychology, is working to develop an intervention to improve engineering students’ success in physics courses.

Summerville’s area of expertise is counterfactual thinking, or thinking about how things might have been, as opposed to how things actually are. According to Summerville, counterfactual thinking is important not only because it helps us identify the causes of negative events, but also because it helps us set intentions for the future.

For instance, she says, someone who’s been involved in a car accident might think, “If only I hadn’t been texting, I wouldn’t have had the accident.” That thought can lead that person to decide to leave their phone in their bag the next time they get behind the wheel.

Summerville thinks that helping engineering students who experience an early setback in a physics class – say receiving a “D” or “F” on the first exam – think about what they might have done differently before that exam could improve their future performance.

“We know,” says physics instructor Blue, “that students aren’t all doing the things that we desperately wish they would do, like completing their homework, coming to class, asking for help, going to office hours.”

The solution Summerville imagines is a worksheet that physics instructors would give to students when they hand back the first exam. The worksheet would ask students a series of questions about how they prepared for the exam and encourage them to reflect on their performance. Then, critically, the worksheet would ask students to generate ideas about what they could do differently to prepare for the next exam.

If Summerville’s intervention proves effective, it would have a significant advantage over many other interventions that have been tried in the past.

“Lots of engineering programs have tried really elaborate, really expensive ways of addressing this – changing pedagogy, creating cohorts, creating all sorts of new administrative systems,” says Summerville. “And what this might allow us to do is help students better take advantage of all the resources that are already there, with almost no additional investment.”

That prospect has intrigued other engineering educators, including members of the project’s advisory board, who work at some of the region’s biggest and most prestigious engineering schools. Still in the first year of their three-year project, the team already has invitations to give talks or lead workshops at The Ohio State University, Purdue University, and Indiana University. Even institutions farther away, like the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, and Texas A&M University, have expressed interest.

While she’s excited about the interest her team’s approach has generated, Summerville cautions that their worksheet isn’t magic, and that it’s important for educators to understand the characteristics of their particular students and to take into account the specific circumstances they face.

“We’re figuring out what works at Miami,” she says. “And there may be important differences between us and other universities.”

One difference, Blue notes, is that Miami students tend to be better prepared than many students at other institutions.

“When I talk to colleagues at other universities, they say, ‘Well, if only our students could do Algebra I material, they might survive,’” Blue says. “Our students can do the math. They’re totally qualified to be there. But they didn’t have to do all this stuff to get ‘A’s in high school, most of them, so they don’t always realize what it’s going to take.”

By delivering talks and leading workshops Summerville hopes to help engineering educators understand the science behind the intervention, so that they can use it to guide students to take ownership of the behaviors that influence their individual academic success. There’s a huge difference for nearly everyone, she says, between being told what to do and making your own decisions.

Kirkmeyer agrees that’s key. “Self-efficacy’s a powerful thing,” he says.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Physics classroom photo by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services. Argon-ion laser photo by University of Exeter via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.


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