(372d) Celebrating the Individual: Encouraging Engineering Students to Find Their Voice

Ollis, D. F. - Presenter, North Carolina State University

Celebrating the
Individual:  Encouraging Engineering
Students to Find Their Voice

Lisa G. Bullard, Carol
K. Hall, and David F. Ollis

Department of Chemical
and Biomolecular Engineering

North Carolina
State University

Studies on retention of freshman engineering students have a
common theme; students who persist in engineering report a feeling of belonging
and a ?fit? with the organizational culture. 
In addition, they make connections with faculty and other students.  In order to facilitate this, the authors have
implemented several mechanisms throughout the curriculum to encourage students
to reflect on their personal journey and express their individuality. 

In several classes the students' first assignment is to
submit a one-page autobiography, using autobiographies of the instructors as
models.  Our autobiographies included information about our families and
personal interests as well as our academic interests, and we encouraged the
students to do the same in theirs. We compile a composite portrait of the class
from the autobiographies and share it as a memo to the students. Another
approach to this (for smaller classes) is to form pairs and ask each pair to
interview the other and introduce their partner to the rest of the class, with
a few introductions occurring in each class over the course of several weeks.  The results of the brief interviews are
compiled and distributed to the class.  Our
goals in these exercises are to give the students a sense of their instructors
as somewhat normal and approachable human beings and to help them start to
develop a sense of community as a cohort.

An initial challenge in our junior professional development
course is to open the student up to writing reflectively about some key
positive factors (parents, mentors, teachers, etc) or negative experiences
(roadblocks and resolutions) important in the student's life.   To invite such atypical introspection, we
ask students to first view Randy Pausch's ?Last lecture? video to demonstrate
his response to an insurmountable personal challenge: his diagnosis of terminal
pancreatic cancer in his mid-forties. We have been impressed over time with the
depth and openness demonstrated by our student writers in this first writing
opportunity, and their candor in discussing their roadblock and barriers.   This writing also sets the stage for a
subsequent mock job interview, during which students are asked about their
resiliency, e.g., behavior in  
challenging and difficult personal, work, or school situations, and what
they learned from (attempted) resolutions.

Several instructors in our department invite students to
submit as extra credit a creative expression of their experience in the
course.  Typical submissions range from
poems to artwork to music videos to edible creations.  This
assignment encourages students to reflect on their experience in the course and
to attempt to express that experience in a tangible way. Hearing other students
bemoan the difficulty of the class or the fear with which they approached it
helps incoming students understand that they are not alone in their
apprehension.  It provides an outlet for
those students with a creative bent to express their individuality, hopefully
dispelling the stereotype that engineers aren't creative. Finally, sharing the
extra credit submissions on the last day of class ends the semester on a
positive and often humorous note and serves to create an indelible memory for
both the students and the instructor.