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Conference Proceeding

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This work in progress paper will describe how a department of civil engineering has built 1-credit engagement courses into the first two years of a new curriculum design to increase retention rates, create a sense of belonging, showcase civil engineering principles and practicality to non-majors, and begin engaging alumni and local civil engineering professionals.

Retention is a core issue for academic departments in the STEM fields. In civil engineering, we have seen a large number of students depart the major each fall and spring semester for various, preventable reasons. This is true for traditional, non-traditional, and transfer students alike. Students have cited a lack of community and support systems as well as a high degree of difficulty in foundational courses without an understanding of how the knowledge gained in these foundational courses will be used in civil engineering specific courses as reasons they have left the program.

When students switch majors, they often switch to programs with a lower difficulty level in the required foundational coursework (math, chemistry, physics, etc.). We have also seen them begin to pursue programs where it is simple to see connections between lower division coursework and their intended field of study early in their academic career. Many students initially choose civil engineering as a career path with a limited view of the field’s breadth and interdisciplinary nature which, when not conveyed early, has led to attrition.

Students desire a community of peers and faculty and a sense of belonging (Marra et al., 2012) in their major. Belonging can be developed in many ways, but a core piece of belonging is knowing what you belong to. When students understand what they are studying, they can connect their input to an output that reflects their values and self-identity now and in the future (Matusovich, Streveler, and Miller, 2010). A large contributing factor to programs not being able to help students make connections is a lack of major-specific courses available where students can find and spend structured time with peers/faculty in their major during the first two years of academic study.

The lower division of a traditional civil engineering curriculum is largely made up of mathematics, physics, and chemistry coursework. At a majority of universities these courses cannot be modified to engage specific majors due to the nature of “service courses” that are taught by centralized departments outside the purview of engineering programs. These courses tend to be very large and students may have a difficult time finding peers from their own major. Students need time to develop a connection to peers as well as to the content of their coursework and neither of these goals are easily met in large-format courses that serve all majors (Hoit & Ohland, 1998).

To begin addressing these issues, a new type of 1-credit, non-prerequisite course has been developed. Students in civil engineering will be required to take three Civil Engineering Engagement Courses (CE-EC or phonetically, “seek”) during the first two years of study and these courses aim to develop a sense of community amongst civil engineering students, introduce students to faculty in a non-intimidating fashion, and allow students to explore the different focus areas of civil engineering early in their academic career. Students outside of civil engineering will also be welcome into these courses to gain an understanding of the field and learn about potential interdisciplinary collaborations. Courses will also help students become acquainted with the local area and challenges faced by civil engineering professionals.

In order to determine if these courses will help solve some of the ongoing retention and sense of belonging issues experienced by many civil engineering programs, we will look at historical attrition rates going back five years, survey alumni about their experiences, and survey students as they graduate. We will also be looking at internal markers that denote a student is thriving (Schreiner et al., 2012). This will occur in tandem with research determining the overall effectiveness of the full curriculum redesign.

Through the implementation of CE-EC courses we anticipate that students, even those who struggle with connection making, will be able to build a connection with peers, faculty, staff, and the civil engineering program in general. We also expect lower attrition rates and possibly a larger student population due to the new visibility civil engineering will have across majors.

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© 2021, American Society for Engineering Education, Proceedings of ASEE Annual Conference, virtual conference.