Saturday, February 27, 2010

Engineering Education Outreach: Are We Doing Everything That Matters?

By Cindy Veenstra (PhD IOE ’08)

The process of earning my doctorate led me to think about how we apply research in practice and how we incorporate that practice back into research, especially as it relates to engineering education. I saw that there’s a critical lack of emphasis on incorporating practice back into research, especially related to K-12 outreach. So I’ve posed a question: Are we doing all we can with the resources we have?

It turns out that applying research to practice is a hot topic in the academic world.

For example, the Division of Student Affairs is sponsoring a symposium in May on “theory to practice.” The current ASEE project, “Creating a Culture of Scholarly and Systematic Innovation in Engineering Education,” focuses on the process of collaboration for applying research to the process of systematically innovating the education of future engineers.

Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation for Education, indicates that there are many stakeholders who must be involved for the U.S. to achieve Lumina’s “Big Goal” of 60 percent of Americans earning a high-quality college degree by 2025 (currently this rate is 40 percent). Although Merisotis is referring to the graduation rate of all students, the engineering community is well aware of its need to increase the number of its graduates and to include many more minorities and women among those graduates. The national six-year graduation rate of engineering students is about 55 percent of those students who enroll in engineering. (By the way, Michigan Engineering is a leader in student success with a six-year graduation rate of 80 percent.)

My research, as well as that of others, has shown that academic preparation in math and sciences in high school prepares an engineering student for academic success in our engineering colleges. Yet the percent of high-school graduates who are sufficiently prepared remains low. Interest in an engineering major also remains low (about 10 percent) among all college freshmen enrolled in bachelor-degree programs. Additionally, the percent of freshman women and minority students in engineering continues to be significantly less than that of the overall traditional college-age population.

I’m pleased that Michigan Engineering has been a leader in its efforts in K-12 outreach, devoting its resources to high-school outreach in the local community. Michigan Engineering hosted the “Summit on Diversity and Opportunity in K-16” in October 2009 at which deans, faculty and staff from engineering colleges in Michigan, K-12 teachers and other interested stakeholders in the community were invited to attend. I participated and found the effort to be impressive. Brainstorming sessions gathered new ideas for encouraging students to consider and be successful in the STEM disciplines.

On the basis of these discussions, the deans of Michigan engineering colleges developed a white paper with recommendations for “increasing the number of high-school graduates, particularly from under-served communities, who are prepared to succeed in four-year engineering colleges.” One of the goals outlined for the K-12 engineering education curricula is to “enhance students’ learning of math and science” and improve the State’s math and science scores – definitely a worthy objective, given that only 11 percent of Michigan students scored 27 or higher in the 2009 ACT, which is the generally accepted preparedness benchmark for passing Calculus I, a gateway course in freshman engineering.

So I’ll pose my question again: Are we doing all we can with the resources we have? Lumina has indicated that we need to seek out all stakeholders, and I believe we need to consider all disciplines, blending research and practice together in a meaningful, effective way. We need to think about how research can improve the practice of K-12 education and how the lessons learned in practice by superintendents of successful school systems can feed back to generate research questions.

As the deans indicated, the key to preparing more engineers for the workforce involves a partnership with the K-12 school systems for systemic change. I believe Michigan Engineering and the other engineering colleges in the state should apply their leadership and experience to this effort, increasing the academic preparation of students for college in general and engineering college in particular, and decreasing the K-12 dropout rate. (If students drop out of K-12, we have lost potential college students.)

Figure 1
What are the best practices for this challenge? There are several fundamental approaches that can guide our efforts. As a volunteer leader of the American Society for Quality (ASQ), I’ll take a moment to share a few of the fundamentals its members apply to efforts in K-12 continuous improvement. I’ve attended conferences where K12 school systems tell their success story, and they generally frame their work around the straightforward Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, shown in Figure 1.

Applying this model is simple. Decide on a set of goals, use the strengths of the school system to align the organization to those goals, make data-driven decisions, and study the results to determine opportunities for continuous improvement. The PDSA model can be followed to increase the number of K-12 students interested in engineering and decrease dropout rates You can enhance the effectiveness of this approach by involving not only individual teachers but also their entire classes, building commitment to learning goals, brainstorming new ideas, and encouraging students to rely on data when making decisions related to their learning success.

This PDSA cycle is the central idea for another key approach to improvement, the Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence, administered by NIST with support from ASQ. Many K-16 educational organizations use its framework to improve their processes, and the actual award application process provides invaluable feedback for continuous improvement. The ideas of Baldrige are consistent with the ideas of quality engineering and management. Many of the concepts are based on the writings of W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran.

Baldrige-based efforts start with a school’s leaders defining the mission and goals, focusing strategic plans on students, faculty and all other stakeholders; improvement metrics and monitoring progress are essential. I find it particularly exciting that the framework incorporates the concept of a learning organization and relies on self-assessment to help each school develop a unique path forward, rather than prescribing a one-size-fits-all approach. Some Michigan school systems have used the Baldrige framework successfully. I recommend that you review the experiences of the 2008 Baldrige winner, the Iredell-Stateville (NC) school district, in the article, “What Matters Most.”

I’ll also suggest that you check out the report generated from ASQ’s 2009 Leadership Summit for Superintendents, which shares participants’ ideas on systemic improvement.

We have a very serious challenge with our current education system. Applying the principles and approaches of PDSA and the Baldrige framework for continuous improvement is an important component of educational leadership outreach for collaboration between engineering colleges and K-12 school systems. Additionally, what we learn from these continuous improvement efforts we must use to generate research questions for further study.

You can get involved in this vital work by participating in the panel session I’m organizing for the ASEE annual conference this summer on “Systems Thinking Using Baldrige in Engineering Colleges.” I hope you will choose to join our efforts to make a difference.

Cindy Veenstra, PhD, is director of Veenstra and Associates. Her PhD research was on “Modeling Freshman Engineering Success.” She is on the board of the ASEE College-Industry Partnerships Division and chair-elect for the ASQ Education Division. She is also associate editor for the new journal Quality Approaches in Higher Education.

She can be reached at


Robert Scott, University of Michigan said...

First of all, thank you for your reference to the Workforce Diversity summit and the Engineering Education whitepaper. Please know that the collaboration of the Michigan engineering deans is moving ahead to the next level: engaging our colleagues in the Schools of Education within our universities as well as reaching out to begin proactive dialogue with state government and the corporate world. Your suggestion to approach this in a holistic, quality-driven way makes great sense.

Valerie Phillips said...

I have to agree with you that the percent of high school graduates who are sufficiently prepared for college remains low. based from statistics, the percentage of engineering education continue to drop as well.

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