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March 2020


  • Survey: Most Engineers Work in Jobs Related to Their Degree

Sponsored Content: Liaison’s EngineeringCAS™

  • Reinventing Engineering Admissions and Enrollment: The Texas A&M Success Story


  • Projects Seek to Improve Homework Assignments

  • Women Use—and Benefit from—Supplemental Instruction


  • Little Woes, One Great Problem


  • Why They Talk about Leaving 


  • It’s an All-Education Issue


  • How to Make Your Physical Lab a Virtual Reality

  • Training Tomorrow’s Engineers to Combat Climate Change

  • Storytelling to Advance Research and Teaching


By Carolyn Wilson

The December 2019 Connections Databyte highlighted the transferability of skills gained by engineering graduates by showing how these graduates were distributed across the science and engineering workforce. Using data from the National Science Foundation’s 2017 National Survey of College Graduates, it compared the distribution of engineering graduates with that of graduates in other fields. The data presented here come from the same survey. They illustrate the extent to which scientists’ and engineers’ principal job was related to their degree field. The survey asked participants if their principal job was closely related, somewhat related, or not related to the field of their highest degree.
Figure 1 displays the extent that individuals felt their principal job was related to their degree field by the major categories of their degree field. More than 90 percent of individuals with degrees in engineering, computer and mathematical sciences, and science and engineering-related fields felt their jobs were either closely related or somewhat related to their degree field. Engineering graduates had the highest combined percentage of 93 percent. Overall, except for individuals with degrees in the social or related sciences, a majority of trained scientists and engineers had a primary job that they felt was related to their degree field. Figure 2 filters out individuals whose primary job is within the same field as their highest degree. The graph displays the extent to which individuals felt their principal job, although not within the same field as their degree, was nonetheless related to their degree field. More than 50 percent of individuals with degrees in engineering, computer and mathematical sciences, and science- and engineering-related fields felt their jobs were closely related to their degree, and 87% of individuals with an Engineering degree felt their job was either closely related or somewhat related to engineering, even though the job was not an engineering occupation. These responses connecting principal jobs with science and engineering degrees again highlight the transferability of skills and knowledge gained from these degrees. This is particularly true for engineering graduates, whether or not they are working within an engineering occupation.


Figure 1

Figure 2 

Sponsored Content

Reinventing Engineering Admissions and Enrollment: The Texas A&M Success Story

Engineering professionals and educators know that today’s competitive admissions environment demands new strategies if engineering institutions are to remain relevant and competitive in the years ahead. But what’s the best way to reinvent your process? The new issue of Liaison International’s quarterly magazine, The Admissionist, features a compelling case study detailing the strategies adopted by Texas A&M University’s (TAMU) College of Engineering to leverage data from in-process applicants in order to recruit and communicate with them more effectively. TAMU found its solution through Liaison’s EngineeringCAS™, which brings admissions offices an improved way to recruit, admit and enroll best-fit engineering students while saving money and better allocating staff resources each admissions cycle.

“It helped us close the gap in the previous delay between students applying and getting any response from our admissions office,” says Tandilyn Morrel, director of Graduate Programs for TAMU’s College of Engineering. “That really changed our pre-decision process. Our graduate advisors now have greater access to admissions documents pre-decision, and they’re able to play a more active role rather than waiting on the admissions office to gather this information. They are also now able to reach out to in-progress applicants. This has been a significant benefit.”

To learn exactly how TAMU's College of Engineering achieved its goals, read “From Fits & Starts to a One-Stop Shop: Transforming TAMU's Engineering Admissions” on page 10 of The Admissionist. Download your copy now. 




Previous research by Jessica Swenson, an assistant professor of engineering education at the State University of New York’s University at Buffalo, investigated the dynamics of groups of engineering students assigned homework problems. She found that students mainly talked about how to get the work done; they seldom discussed concepts andtheir applications. In a new project, now underway, Swenson’s team will develop homework problems that require students to make sense of concepts, especially through writing and discussion. The study will collect data on current homework problems, develop prompts, and devise new problems for a pilot with small groups of students. In a related, separate project, Swenson is working to create homework problems for technical, core engineering courses that are open-ended—that is, they have no one correct answer. The problems will ask students to use what they’ve learned in a course to create a mathematical model of a real-world scenario. Swenson will examine how students approach these problems, and also if the effort helps in the development of their engineering judgment. 


A recent longitudinal study conducted by investigators at Northeastern University looked at how several factors—including self-reported gender, first-semester GPA, credits earned in high school and supplemental instruction (SI)—affected the retention and success of a cohort of Northeastern undergraduates over the five-year period from the fall of 2013 to the summer of 2018. The cohort numbered 719 students: 508 males and 211 females. Information regarding gender, college credits earned in high school and participation in a first-year SI program was analyzed for its effect on retention, graduation rates, and final GPAs. Their paper, presented at last year’s ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, reported that for both male and female students there was a correlation between their end-of-first-semester GPAs and their graduation GPAs. But the females had higher five-year rates of graduation and higher mean GPAs at graduation than did the males. College credits earned in high school have an influence on the academic performance of male students. Male students who didn’t earn college credits in high school had significantly lower rates of retention and graduation and GPAs than those with pre-earned credits. For women students, there was no significant difference in outcomes between those who came in with college credits and those who didn’t. Female students, however, were much more likely to use SI in their first year than males. And females who began without any pre-earned credits used SI at markedly higher rates than those who came in with credits. The heavy use of SI by young women who enroll without having earned any college credits, the study finds, “may explain why females achieve higher levels of academic success throughout their undergraduate careers.”



Gaps in coordination, execution and expectation plague online teaching. They can’t be filled with mere software fixes.

By Aditya Johri

“Great subjects are illuminated best by small dramas,” the writer V. S. Naipaul once remarked. I was reminded of this adage while dealing with an incident during an online class. It occurred right around the end of the semester and, not surprisingly, had to do with grading. A student was certain an online assignment had been completed on time and contested receiving a zero grade for missing the deadline. I e-mailed the student a screenshot showing the paper hadn’t been turned in. The student responded with a screenshot purporting to show it had been completed. Many messages were exchanged, and my teaching assistant and I spent a lot of time, independently, trying to trace what had happened and talking to others who might have run into a similar problem.

A similar episode might play out in a face-to-face, on-campus, class. Yet, there are nuances to online teaching that can turn such small dramas, collectively, into a great problem that eats away at teaching time and faculty-student relations. The problem doesn’t have to do with the technology alone but is sociotechnical in nature and one for which we don’t seem to have good solutions. And I’m talking here just from the instructor’s perspective; I’m sure students have their own struggles with online learning. Overall, in an effort to solve the problems in front of us, we seem to be increasing the complexity of online teaching without improving its substance—learning.The issues I’ve encountered fall within three large sociotechnical gaps.

The first, a coordination gap, is the informational mismatch or disparity between people or technologies that is necessary to undertake a desired action. This gap manifests itself in many ways—for instance, when the same courses are offered both within the learning management system (LMS) and in a live classroom, an instructor must coordinate with other teachers, IT support, and students. We must engage the Office of Disability to ensure that students who need accommodation have it and that exceptions for these students are entered within the LMS. Inadequate coordination has repercussions for access, bias, and fairness. Each semester brings new things to learn and different obstacles to overcome. As a result, the coordination gap is constantly in play.

The second gap, an execution gap, is the disparity between the way in which the system is supposed to behave—the capabilities it supposedly has—and its actual affordances and functioning. This mismatch occurs largely because LMS systems are still trying to move from a repository-of-resources model to something that is more user driven. The common approach is to continually add more features to the system and attempt to satisfy every possible use case. New features are often decided upon by administrators who are purchasing the software rather than instructors or students. The result is a system that is even more complicated to use and imposes an increasingly steep learning curve.

Finally, there is the expectation gap. Learners, especially those who have grown up with mobile technology and social media, nowadays have definite expectations when using a technology platform, and this applies equally to online classes. They expect that response time will be short (almost immediate), that technology will work seamlessly across platforms, and that resources will be molded to suit their habits. For instance, video-based content will be available as an alternative to text and when text is used, it will be short. A mismatch in expectations between the learner and the instructor often leads to a breakdown in trust.

As to my small end-of-semester drama, the system provided no evidence that the student completed the exercise. Since it was a low-stakes assignment, the student still passed the course. But the incident chipped away at our mutual trust and forced us to waste a lot of time that should have been spent on teaching and learning.


Aditya Johri is a professor of information sciences and technology at George Mason University.



A social-media platform offers revealing insights into dilemmas faced by engineering graduate students.

By Catherine Berdanier, Carey Whitehair, Adam Kirn and Derrick Satterfield

Graduate-student attrition in engineering is shockingly prevalent. In the United States, the most recent reports from the Council of Graduate Schools estimate attrition from engineering graduate programs to be between 24 percent and 35 percent for domestic men and women, respectively, and 57 percent for African-American doctoral students. While attrition is costly for students, advisers, departments, universities, and funding agencies, the trend remains understudied, especially in engineering. Our research investigated the decision-making processes of students who considered leaving their graduate engineering programs.

Aware of the sensitive and stigmatized nature of attrition, we mined the social media forum Reddit.com for engineering graduate students’ narratives. Reddit allows users to post content or questions online and anonymously engage with others. While Reddit is typically non-academic, it is also a rich source of publicly available, anonymous posts from current students considering whether to leave their graduate programs. The anonymity leads people to be forthright about their decision-making processes. We applied narrative analysis, a qualitative method that values the personal storytelling element of data, to the posts.

Our findings culminated in development of the Graduate Attrition Decisions (GrAD) model, which connects various themes found in the study. Some of the themes align with prior work, while others highlight new aspects of attrition. The GrAD model is flexible in that it can illuminate the intertwined psychological and sociological factors that can push a student toward concluding that graduate studies are not “worth it.” Psychological factors might include uncertain or changing goals or fear of the effort required to succeed. Sociological influences include relations with an adviser or particular policies. An imbalance or misfortune in one area increases the importance of success in other areas in persuading a student to remain in an academic program.

This work offers research-based counter-narratives to comments frequently heard about graduate student attrition, such as, “They might just be failing their classes,” “Well, what did you expect graduate school to be like?” or worse: “It’s better than when I was a grad student.” Such responses are not helpful and ultimately irrelevant. As represented by their narratives, the students in our study overwhelmingly seemed prepared for graduate school. Many of them self-reported having passed qualifying exams or dissertation proposals, and several self-reported achieving prestigious awards such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship or the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.

One theme that emerged was a change in personal goals. While some students expressed a desire to alter career paths due to external factors, several of them simply realized that their field or a research-centric career was not their passion. A second theme was fear of how others would view their decision to depart. Myths of problematic adviser relationships were both confirmed and dispelled: While some students considering departure really felt supported by their advisers, other students reported emotional abuse.

Catherine Berdanier is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Pennsylvania State University; Carey Whitehair is a mechanical engineer at North American Lighting; Adam Kirn is an assistant professor of engineering education at the University of Nevada–Reno, and Derrick Satterfield is a graduate research assistant at the University of Nevada–Reno. This article is adapted from “Analysis of Social Media Forums to Elicit Narratives of Graduate Engineering Student Attrition” in the January 2020 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education.



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It’s an All-Education Issue, with features on starting a new engineering college, improving admissions diversity, teaching climate change, engineering education in prisons, revolutionizing engineering departments, and more.


Share Tools with Your Colleagues: As a service to engineering schools conducting online classes due to the coronavirus, the next issue of Connections will be largely devoted to innovative ways of adapting laboratory teaching to a virtual classroom. Please send examples to m.matthews@asee.org 


April 15 at 1 PM, ET: In support of Earth Day 2020, tune in for a new webinar and learn how two NSF-funded projects, RISE-UP and ReNUWIt, are training tomorrow’s engineers to build resilience and combat the effects of climate change through robust interdisciplinary initiatives. Register today: http://bit.ly/2Tlt4F9


April 9 at 1 PM, ET: What’s your story? Tune in to learn how storytelling techniques can be used to propel your research and teaching, helping you communicate research impacts, write proposals, share best teaching practices, and teach difficult concepts. Learn more and register at http://bit.ly/3c99jba.


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