Rachel Vitali is a University of Iowa assistant professor of mechanical engineering.
Thursday, August 24, 2023
Rachel Vitali

A little more than half of engineering students, particularly those identifying as underrepresented minorities and women, end up leaving the field either while still in school or after graduation. 

Rachel Vitali, a University of Iowa assistant professor of mechanical engineering, proposes this is partially due to a mismatch between expectations of engineering and what students learn in the classroom during the beginning of their programs.  

Data show as many as half of entering students leave their engineering program after the first or second year, with many reporting lost interest or even disliking engineering. 

Through a new two-year study sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Vitali plans to modify the teaching approach in the middle two years of an engineering program to see if that helps correct perceptions as well as intentions to persist in the major and workforce.  

Specifically, Vitali plans to incorporate a more contextual, holistic framing of how engineering has been practiced throughout modern history in the classroom. Another innovative teaching strategy will provide students with more descriptive context for how engineering science concepts are implemented in practice, particularly how it relates to design, and how engineering judgment is essential in that implementation. 

Through surveys and interviews, Vitali hopes to understand if this different approach leads to positive outcomes.  

The study is funded by a $152,201 NSF grant. It is titled, “Collaborative Research: Research Initiation: Contextualizing Engineering Science Courses by Teaching History and Judgement.” Aaron W. Johnson, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, is a collaborator on the project.