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More than a Numbers Game: Engineering Continues Its Upward Trajectory

AUTHOR: Nina Welding

PUBLISHED: February 25, 2016

When assessing the success of programs, like engineering, it is fitting that numbers are a big part of the picture. For the last several years the College of Engineering has been running uphill. Our undergraduate enrollment is growing, our retention rates are higher, placement of recent graduates in full-time positions has increased, and the number of junior faculty who have received national awards has been steadily rising. These are all signs of a strong and vibrant program with a positive trajectory. But they are only part of a story that bears a closer look as it impacts the future of engineering and innovation on the global stage.

Our enrollment, for example, has been consistently growing since 2006. Today, the College of Engineering serves one of the largest segments of undergraduates in the University — more than 1,800 students from first-year to senior-level. In the first year alone, our numbers are not only 40% higher than 10 years ago but they also reflect a more diverse student body, featuring more high-performing, under-represented, and first-generation students than ever.

We are also retaining more students in engineering — 85+% compared to 60% a decade ago. How did we do this while maintaining the time and credit hours required to master the technical content of engineering? We asked the students. The input they provided helped us reformat courses, especially during the critical first year, where we added course sections to create a more intimate and rewarding experience for our students. We also expanded the number of hands-on experiences and augmented faculty participation during the first year with course assistants and peer mentors. These changes raised individual student interaction and satisfaction with courses, helping them better cope with the transition from high school to college and better understand the collaborative and experiential nature of engineering.

Much of our success with students is due to the steadfast commitment to excellence exhibited by our faculty, especially our young faculty. Not only do they energize the classroom, but they are also infusing our research with their enthusiasm and innovative thinking. And their efforts are being noticed by the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Department of Energy, as well as the Army Research Office, the Office of Naval Research, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In the past five years 20 young faculty have received the highest awards available in recognition of their novel approaches to solving many of society’s grand challenges. 

We are also promoting and hiring senior-level faculty — a total of 12 endowed professorships in the last five years alone — in key areas. Already leaders in their fields and a part of the national conversation, these senior faculty are mentoring both the junior faculty, as well as undergraduate and graduate students, our next generation of innovators.

Yes, the College of Engineering boasts some impressive numbers. Still they are only part of the reason for the success we are experiencing. At the core of the college’s upward movement is its renewed focus on the whole person, the “citizen engineer” — a confident and competent technical leader with affective skills  (teamwork, communication, and leadership) who is capable of addressing those grand challenges and building a better future, personally and professionally.

For example, one group of students in our program is working to clean up Bowman Creek, a tributary to the St. Joseph River, which is heavily polluted and has long been neglected. It flows through one of the poorest and depressed neighborhoods in South Bend.  Instead of sitting in a classroom reading about the problem or even creating miniature models of the system in class, the students are walking the neighborhoods, collecting water samples, studying the topography, talking to residents about the issues associated with the challenge, as well as the different perspectives associated with it. It’s edifying to watch as they begin to comprehend the various social and economic dimensions they will have to weigh as engineers and how they need to communicate and work in teams to achieve solutions.

The self-awareness students come to experience — that they have a place and a function in the world, that they can make a major impact — is a difference maker. It helps build character, and it engenders even more compassion in these young engineers for the people they will serve. All of this is achieved by weaving leadership opportunities and real issues into rigorous technical coursework.

It is this blending of body, heart, and mind – the education of the whole person — that is at the core of the University’s mission and the College of Engineering’s approach to education and leadership training that will continue to make all the difference for our students, our faculty, and our world. It’s not a pure numbers game, but we do expect the fruits of these changes to continue to multiply as the college continues to grow — as new students enter our program, and as graduating students enter the market and academia — so that each new year is another step forward.