College Engineering: It’s Not What You Think

I enjoy spending time at Colorado State University as an Engineer in Residence (EiR) for the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. This volunteer program is in partnership with the IEEE High Plains Section and brings practicing engineers to campus to advise ECE students about their various projects.

I asked the CSU senior students what advice they would give to a high-school version of themselves about college engineering studies. Their answer was always the same, “It’s not what you think!” For some students, the unexpected can be fatal to their college career.

The national average graduation rate for undergraduate engineering students in the United States is around 55% [1].   Almost all of that attrition occurs during the freshman and sophomore years. Why students leave engineering has a common theme.

Surveys of engineering students show that some have insufficient preparation for college work, which is exacerbated by the relentless high pace of classroom information. Some qualified students leave because they never develop a sense of belonging in an engineering program. Those feelings of isolation are reinforced by the requirement that they teach themselves much of the material outside the classroom and this homework load displaces an otherwise familiar social life. In high school, students fail to develop a true understanding of what to expect in their freshman year and may possess little if any of the commitment needed to graduate with an engineering degree [2, 3].

The classroom environment in college engineering can have a devastating psychological impact on new students. The straight-A student from an average high school discovers that maintaining a high GPA in engineering is much harder because the course work is geared toward an entire classroom filled with high-performing students.

In high school, the student has come to believe that teachers possess all the information, truth, and wisdom and it is the teacher’s job to dispense it in bite-sized lectures. The student further believes it’s their job to just soak it all up and repeat it on homework and exams. Learning mission accomplished.

The unspoken contract between student and professor is different in college. Professors introduce new topics and cover the basics, all the while expecting students to address the details on their own, practice them on homework, and show competency on exams. The professors are gently preparing students for the real world where there are no teachers, lectures, homework, or exams. There are only problems – usually poorly defined ones – and solutions are either acceptable or not.  No partial credit [4].

Engineering colleges around the country confront the attrition problem by inserting hands-on engineering design work into the freshman curriculum. This real engineering activity helps maintain student interest in the program during the first two years of skill-building classes – chemistry, mathematics, physics, programming, history, and writing. Additionally, many engineering colleges arrange for tutoring and social programs to help at-risk freshmen adjust to the university.

At Power Mountain, we simply extend the successful application of college-level project instruction to the high-school student while informing them about the true nature of college life and what it even means to be an engineer in the first place.

Join Power Mountain and get real about your STEM education.


  1. Alan D. Niemi and Robert W. Warke, “Facing Our Retention Challenge: A Self-Portrait,” Proceedings 2011 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Vancouver International Conference Centre, June 27, 2011, American Society for Engineering Education
  2. Mark Matthews, “Keeping Students in Engineering: A Research-to-Practice Brief,” ASEE Retention Project, August 27, 2012, American Society for Engineering Education
  3. Stephen B. Taylor, et al., “Freshman Retention Study in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Arkansas,” Department of Mechanical Engineering, Proceedings of the 2005 Midwest Section Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR, September 14-26, 2005
  4. Richard M. Felder, “An Engineering Student Survival Guide,” North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1993