Smoothing the Road to Engineering
For some aspiring engineers, the road to the major may seem too rocky as they grapple with math, physics, chemistry, and computer science prerequisites. Recognizing that all some students may need is a little help and encouragement to complete those preparatory courses, the Dartmouth Emerging Engineers (DEE) program is providing study aid and support for three hours a night at Thayer every Sunday through Thursday.
“Our data indicate the majority of engineering dropouts—meaning switching to a different major—occur in the prerequisite mathematics and science courses for the major, often before students have taken a single engineering class,” says Professor Petra Bonfert-Taylor, who heads the program with Assistant Dean for Academic and Student Affairs Holly Wilkinson. “Our goals are to help students be successful and keep the doors to the engineering major open for them by supporting them both academically and emotionally.”
Tutoring by peers is one of DEE’s main activities. “We carefully select and train our TAs so as to provide academic as well as emotional support to our students,” Bonfert-Taylor says. “Students are especially vulnerable during their first year here since, after having been high achievers in their high schools, they now might experience their first class in which they struggle and receive a poor or even failing grade. We want to prevent a first poor grade from derailing a student’s path.”
As engineering major Ebony Smith ’18, a DEE tutor who was previously a tutee, says, “A professor can schedule an exam at a time when you don’t have all the pieces together—you’re still trying to sort them out in your head. Working with a tutor helped me voice and piece together bits and pieces I had gotten from lecture and forced me to explain what I thought the concepts were. All I really needed was for someone to just listen and tell me, you know, you’re really on to something there. A lot of times the student just needs to hear that. I feel that some of our best engineers could come from that person who might give up if there’s not another person saying that you can do it.”
“I remembered how I struggled my freshman year trying to go through all those prerequisite courses,” says DEE tutor Sandile Dube ’19. “In a class of 80 people a professor has to assume some level of knowledge that people are coming in with, but the truth is that people are coming in with different levels of preparation. DEE meets people where they are and helps them work from there.”
According to Wilkinson, DEE deliberately holds study sessions at Thayer to incorporate prospective majors into the Thayer community from the start.
“Freshmen get to interact with other people pursuing engineering and watch them work on their projects,” says Sandile, who tutors math. “The question that comes up most often is: ‘Will I ever need this in engineering?’ I think it’s encouraging for them to hear, yes, you need it and you can apply it to this and to that and to this. They need to be in Thayer because they get to see the relevance of the prerequisite courses even before they start taking an engineering course.”
Smith says that DEE offers students a place where they “are able to voice what they are feeling, their frustration. If they say they failed a midterm, I can say I understand because I got a D on my first math midterm, but I still passed the class with a high B. They come back for those conversations, for the community. It’s about the laughs, working over a problem, and having someone there to encourage you. Being in an atmosphere where people keep trying encourages you.”
DEE study sessions have attracted 95 students this year, according to Bonfert-Taylor.
“One of the reason I’m here,” says Smith, “is to inspire the students who have similar thoughts of doubt or fear, that if they don’t voice them can turn them around from their dream, from what they have passion for just because the road looks too difficult and has too many bumps in it. My hope for DEE is that students are exposed to different experiences of what it is like to be an engineer at Dartmouth. We each have our weaknesses, we each have our strengths, and you have to find what works for you.”