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Science Committee Questions

by Charles Pekow

Science Committee Questions
Pathways to Engineering EducationTwo- and four-year colleges must work together to align curricula, committee says
By Charles Pekow

If the nation is to have enough engineers in coming years, it must turn community colleges into developmental gateways for the engineering profession. And community colleges will be able to perform that role only if they work much more closely with four-year schools to align curricula, retain students and maintain standards. That is the warning sounded by a forthcoming report from a study committee formed by the National Academy of Engineering and affiliates of the National Science Foundation. Although 40 percent of engineers already come through community colleges, the numbers will have to increase in order to meet a growing need, the committee said.

According to the report, “Enhancing the Community College Pathway to Engineering Careers,” articulation agreements are the first things schools need to improve.

Sometimes faculty at two- and four-year schools work together well, but they often don’t have the power to make transfers work, the committee found.

“Although many educational institutions have transfer officers and dedicated advisors, decisions about which courses will transfer are often handled by registrars or admissions officers that may be far removed from the partnership. Faculty members often have the clearest idea of which courses should transfer,” reads the report. On the other hand, “If only one or two faculty members are behind the transfer mission, those faculty members may become indispensable to the functioning of the program. If they stop participating or retire, for example, there could be a major interruption in the transfer function.”

One interesting partnership has sprung up between North Carolina State University and Lenoir Community College in Kinston, N.C. NCSU provides Lenoir with the names of students rejected from its freshman class. Lenoir then contacts the students, telling them that they can enroll in the two-year college’s engineering program with the possibility of transferring to NCSU in the future.

For decades, statewide councils of undergraduate engineering educators representing two- and four-year programs in Washington state and California have been meeting once or twice a year to discuss coordination, standards and other transfer issues.

All in all, the committee concluded that while the best articulation agreements smoothed transfers, the focus should be on outcomes rather than mechanics like credits, content and course sequencing. And it warned that students can get discouraged if they have to take courses to get an associate degree that aren’t accepted by the four-year college they transfer to.

Transfer agreements themselves need work, the committee said. Sometimes the four-year college will change its curricula without giving the two-year school time to adjust. And sometimes two-year schools couldn’t live up to their end of the bargain because they lacked faculty, facilities or other resources, they told the committee.

The committee also faulted two-year schools for not keeping adequate tabs on their engineering graduates. They don’t follow up enough
to see how their graduates fare in four-year engineering programs, or even track them by race or gender.

“Most often, community colleges lose sight of students once they transfer to four-year institutions, precisely when they should begin tracking the educational and career trajectories of their students,” the report says. In response to worries by the two-year colleges about the costs associated with tracking students, the committee recommended a national data collection effort with the help of organizations such as the National Center for Education Statistics, the National Science Foundation and the American Association of Community Colleges.

But the committee concluded that much more research into the two- and four-year connections will be needed before finding effective solutions. Suggestions included comparing outcomes for students who start at community colleges with those for students who start at four-year institutions. The committee also considered studying attrition rates of community college students and examining which aspects of four-year colleges most help transferees.

According to the committee, the study produced more questions than answers. They want to know more about the effects of culture and campus support services on the retention of engineering students, whether students can effectively learn online and what competency standards students should meet after graduating from community college. The committee also questioned whether math courses should emphasize engineering more and how to persuade faculty and administrators (as well as government policymakers) to enhance the role of community colleges as gateways to an engineering education.

But before the committee goes any further, it needs money. The committee had hoped to publish the report a year ago, but the review process and lack of funds for printing hampered the process, says Dr. Mary C. Mattis, senior program officer for the National Academy of Engineering’s Diversity Program.

Mattis says NAE hopes it can print as many as 250 hard copies of the report. “We’d like to understand more about the perspectives of four-year schools because they are in the dominant position in this relationship,” she says. “We tried to focus on the exemplary partnerships. We wanted to know about the barriers and motivations of four-year schools to get them more involved in the transfer process.”
Electronic copies of the report are available for sale at <http://books.nap.edu/catalog/11438.htm>



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