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June 2013

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ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition

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Education | Engineering | Engineering Education


This paper discusses the effectiveness of using projects with a “wow factor,” that is, engaging and challenging hands-on projects, in a freshman engineering course to motivate studentretention and persistence in engineering. Our course enrolls approximately 700 students per year in a lecture/laboratory format. Our university, a large comprehensive public university in thewest, has offered a freshman introduction to engineering course since 1992. In its original form, the course was part of a lower division engineering core, required of all engineering majors, and focused on computational skills (spreadsheets and MATLAB).In 1997, based on faculty and student feedback, a task force was formed to redesign the course to make it more motivating for first year students, incorporate projects that introduced students to the design process, provide opportunities to practice teamwork and communication skills, and provide support in academic success and professional development. The course included three design projects but most of the design work and teamwork was done outside of class. Projects included disassembling a household object and describing the components, a penny launcher, a rubber-powered flying machine, and a balsa-wood bridge. These projects all used materials that students could easily find around the house or at a local grocery store, making the projects easily accessible. One the other hand many were similar to projects students had done in high school science courses. Assessments indicated gains in student knowledge about and positive attitudes towards engineering as a career. These results were reported in a 2002 ASEE FIE paper. Gains were significant in knowledge areas (ranging from 1 to 1.6 on a five point scale for most areas); however the changes in attitudes were very modest. There was virtually no impact on students’ perceptions about engineering as an a) exciting profession, b) challenging profession, c)profession that contributes to society, or d) profession in which people design products. In 2007, a new task force was convened to review the course. At the time 20% to 50% of our engineering freshmen (depending on gender and ethnicity) were not persisting in engineering into the sophomore year. Furthermore, the course was not filling its intended purpose, as 30% of the students in the class were students who had waited until their junior or senior year to take it. At the same time the College of Engineering received a large donation from an alumnus that was used to renovate two rooms specifically for team-based projects in the freshman course. This enabled the college to expand the scope of the projects to team-based, multi-week, multi-disciplinary, challenging projects that students work on in a well equipped dedicated lab. A multi-disciplinary team of faculty designed a series of projects that engage students in multiple steps of the design cycle including brainstorming, conceptualizing, building, testing, evaluating, revising, and finally, communicating their design outcomes both orally and in writing. One of the projects has students design a 3D solid model of a rotor/blade assembly for a wind turbine and then build it using a rapid prototyping machine. In this project, they also mount the blade assembly and a small dc motor used as generator on top of a tower that they also have designed and fabricated. They must experimentally determine the stiffness of the tower, and measure the power output of the turbine under different electrical loads. In another project, students build a circuit board to detect infrared signals, and then design, build and program a robot that uses the circuit board to complete a specified set of tasks. This is where the wow factor comes in. Most students have never soldered, used a drill press, anemometer, tachometer, or dial meter, or even sawed a piece of wood. Most have never seen a rapid prototyping machine and are very excited about actually touching and using an object that they designed on the computer. While an ever increasing number of students have done some robotics in high school, few have ever built and programmed a circuit board to control their robot. Students also get excited about working with solar cells, and discovering their low efficiency rating. In 2010 the College was awarded an NSF grant to add aspects of sustainability to the class. The course now puts more emphasis on energy sources, life cycle analysis, recycling, and the water- energy nexus. Currently, retention rates from freshman to sophomore year have increased to close to 90%, and the College wanted to determine factors that are contributing to this gain. This study used the same pre-post assessment used in 2002 to evaluate student gains in attitudes and knowledge about engineering as a career to compare the effectiveness of this new version of the course to the previous version. In addition, to better understand impacts of the sustainability content and the more involved design projects, a survey was administered to students who completed the course during the previous 18 months. We still see significant gains in knowledge but also higher interest in engineering and a much better understanding of the importance of effective teamwork. While a study of this type cannot fully evaluate the effectiveness of this course in the overall retention increase, this paper presents the results of the two sets of assessments and provides observations about the effectiveness of the “wow factor.”


© 2013 American Society for Engineering Education. This article originally appeared in the proceedings of the 2013 ASEE Annual Conference, and can also be found online at this link.
Paper presented at 2013 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Atlanta, Georgia.