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While spending a sabbatical at Harvey Mudd College a few years ago, Professor Michael Moody learned an important lesson from a struggling student. Moody, perplexed by the student’s unflagging desire to remain in school despite poor grades, suggested Harvey Mudd might not be a good fit. Why, he asked, do you want to stay at a school that’s clearly so challenging for you?
“You don’t understand,” the student replied. “This is the only school for me. It’s the first place where I’ve felt normal.”
Moody, now the dean of the faculty at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, says the conversation was an eye-opener for him. In a sentence, the student had captured the essence of the small college engineering experience. Schools like Mudd, Moody saw, were offering a distinctive alternative to the big, research-oriented universities that pride themselves more on their Ph.D. programs and less on their undergraduate teaching. The smaller breed of schools were replacing unapproachable professors with committed teachers and swapping high washout rates for a close-knit community spirit that made students feel as if they were part of a family.
“There were a lot of students who felt that way,” Moody says. “They were so much a part of the community that they didn’t want to be torn from it.”
These days, that kind of satisfaction isn’t the norm in the world of engineering education. Today’s educators worry young American students are shying away from engineering. At the same time, surveys by the Princeton Review show engineering students tend to be generally unhappier and particularly disenchanted with teaching quality. When Princeton Review’s Best 366 Colleges recently published a list titled “Professors Get Low Marks,” for example, seven of the worst 10 schools were engineering colleges. Similarly, a compilation of “least happy students” included five schools with a large percentage of engineers.
None of this is lost on administrators at colleges such as Mudd, Olin and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, all of which pride themselves on their student happiness and graduation rates.
“There’s a direct correlation between student happiness and the quality of education at the good institutions,” says Gerald Jakubowski, president of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. “At places like Olin, Harvey Mudd and Rose-Hulman, the faculties have a deep desire to challenge and work with the students.”
Beyond the Research Model
Small school proponents claim their philosophy of working with students is more than lip-service. The underpinning of that philosophy lies in the mechanics of how colleges pay their professors. At big state institutions, they say, engineering professors are hired and measured on the quality of their research.
“Core values in the big schools hinge on the faculty members’ ability to bring in dollars,” says Ziyad Duron, chair of the Engineering Dept. at Harvey Mudd College. “Your research dollars are expected to offset a certain portion of your salary. And you need to bring in a certain amount annually because you need to support five or six graduate students.”
The result of this methodology is teaching skills are placed on the back burner in some universities, they say. “Most schools will keep the faculty members if they are very productive in research, even if their teaching is not the best,” Moody says. “But at undergraduate colleges, the culture is different. The school may have decent scholarly ambitions for its faculty, but it will be uncompromising about the quality of teaching.”
Olin, Mudd and Rose-Hulman all say they try harder to engage students, particularly in their first and second years, when many lose interest in an engineering degree. Olin does it by providing engineering context, even in introductory math, physics and chemistry courses. During the first year, it introduces students to lathes, mills and laser cutters in the school’s machine shop. It also calls on students to design products and learn how to market those products.
Similarly, Rose-Hulman professors take students on field trips, where they get to see the social significance of engineering work. In a class on engineering failures, for example, mechanical engineering professor Richard Stamper has loaded students into a van and driven them from the school’s Terre Haute, IN campus to Indianapolis, where they meet with product liability attorneys who school them on the effects of bad design.
“We show them that if they injure someone, there’s a building full of smart people who will come after them,” Stamper says.
Stamper has also taken students to meet with an orthopedic surgeon who discusses failure of spinal implants due to fatigue. Recently, Stamper arranged a field trip to General Electric to discuss failures of rotary compressors.
“It would be hard to take a class of 60 students on a trip likes this,” Stamper says. “But with our smaller classes, I can do it.”
Harvey Mudd College takes a slightly different tack. A tiny engineering school with only 729 students, Mudd has been able to set up fellowship programs for its undergraduate students. By working with corporate donors, the school has set up projects around the country that help students gain a better understanding of the engineering world. Mudd students worked with the Phoenix Fire Dept., for example, to develop a field-based monitoring approach to help firefighters track structural stability loss in burning buildings. To better understand the process, students were given permission to burn designated buildings and analyze the effects of fire.
“We’re one year away from giving the government a complete system that can be used to help firefighters understand how structures weaken when they are on fire,” says Duron.
“Mudders,” as they are known, have also worked on a concrete dam design in San Diego County, CA, built synthetic corneas, engineered synthetic tissue and designed high-speed switching circuitry to help overcome communication bottlenecks. All the projects were funded by donors.
“They’ve been exposed to community issues, environmental issues and financial issues,” Duron says. “It makes engineering real for them. All that calculus can come alive in the face of a dam that needs to hold 700,000 acre-ft of water during a San Andreas (fault) catastrophe.”
Duron argues the fellowship program provides engineering experience and breeds student happiness. “I tell the students, ‘We’ve got to convince you that people will pay you for this knowledge,’” he says. “And when the work pays off, they get happy. People get happy when they contribute.”
Small-school proponents say such happiness stands in stark contrast with student satisfaction in the big schools. There, they say, students are taking the same theoretical classes, but math and physics professors typically offer no clear link to the engineering profession. Worse, most such students have no access to fellowships, foundries, machine shops or field trips.
Experts argue, however, happiness is not a good way to monitor educational effectiveness. “It’s an odd measure for rating an engineering school,” says Robert Gonyea, associate director of the National Survey of Student Engagement. “Happiness? Come on. It could be that the students are working really hard in those big schools and that’s not a lot of fun.”
Moreover, experts say there are other reasons for the success of schools, such as Harvey Mudd, Rose-Hulman and Olin College of Engineering. All are extraordinarily selective, drawing students with average SAT scores approaching 1500 and ACT scores ranging from 30-35. To ensure such selectivity, Olin even gives full tuition scholarships to every student.
“Just by being able to get better students, you can do much more,” Gonyea says. “No matter where they are, they’re going to learn, soak it up and be successful.”
Still, it’s hard to argue with the extraordinary success of the small, elite schools. Olin, for example, graduated 91 percent of its Class of 2007. Rose-Hulman finished right behind with 85 percent and Harvey Mudd had an 83 percent graduation rate.
In contrast, American engineering school graduation rates as a whole now average between 40 to 45 percent, after hovering around 33 percent for decades. Some bigger schools, such as the University of Texas at Austin, have boosted their yield to about 50 percent. Even the most selective of the big schools seldom climb above that figure.
Small schools often attribute the difference to a sense of community. At Harvey Mudd, third- and fourth-year students typically live in the dormitories. Rose-Hulman, meanwhile, has developed a plan in which it gives a financial break on room and board to successful juniors if they stay in the dorms and help their younger counterparts. Similarly, Rose-Hulman also funded a special sophomore residence hall as a way of reducing attrition in sophomore year, which historically has had the highest washout rate in American engineering schools.
Moreover, higher graduation rates motivate students to help one another, since they don’t feel they’re in competition for grades. “Students here are very supportive,” says Annika Eberle, a junior engineering student at Harvey Mudd College. “If you need help with your homework problems, you just have to ask enough people before you find it.”
That environment stands in sharp contrast to the traditional engineering education model, in which schools deliberately use first- and second-year classes as a filter to eliminate students.
“It was more common 30 years ago, but schools actually referred to them as ‘weed-out classes,’” says Jakubowski of Rose-Hulman. “Those who survived continued; those who didn’t were purged.”
To be sure, the success of the small schools in eliminating that culture depends in part on the startling similarities of their students. Olin College, for example, is 56 percent male, while Harvey Mudd is 71 percent male and Rose-Hulman is 81 percent. All students tend to be bright and well-educated. Most important, nearly all of them are engineering majors.
Clearly, that lack of diversity is a double-edged sword. While some students may be turned off by the fact a school is male-dominated, others interpret the high percentage of engineers as a sign of a common mission.
“Engineering is intense, analytical, quantitative and exacting,” says Moody of Olin. “Not all degree programs are as rigorous. Sometimes, engineering students (in bigger schools) look at their roommates and wonder, ‘Why do I have to stay up studying all night when they don’t?’ In a school with more engineers, you don’t have that problem.”
Dealing with the Education Dilemma
Questions remain as to whether the small school model will help the U.S. deal with what many describe as a looming engineering crisis. Unfortunately, small college deans say their model can’t be employed at universities, not only because class sizes are bigger, but because the big schools typically focus on research.
“The big schools have asked me, ‘Do you think your model will work in our institutions?’” says Duron of Harvey Mudd. “And I’ve repeatedly answered, ‘Absolutely not. The cultures won’t allow it.’”
At the same time, experts warn merely being small isn’t necessarily the answer. Harvey Mudd, Rose-Hulman and Olin have succeeded not just because they are small, but because they are good schools that attract strong students.
“It’s true that, in general, small schools seem to provide an environment that’s more engaging for college students,” says Gonyea of the National Survey of Student Engagement. “But it’s not universally true. I could find some very big schools that do a better job than some very small schools.”
Still, experts contend there’s a need for more American-born kids to find engagement in engineering and the model used by Harvey Mudd, Olin and Rose-Hulman is one that seems to work.
“Because these schools are residential and because they have cooperative cultures where students are surrounded by other engineers, they feel acceptance,” Moody says. “In an intangible way, all of those things reinforce each other and keep the students happy.”