From the mouths of Engineering Academic Advisors


How to prepare your high school students for success as an engineering major

For many students, the transition from high school to college is challenging, regardless of their major. Even top performing students (valedictorians, gasp!) are often surprised at how much study time is required at the college level and how critical thinking skills – not memorization – are required for student success. We consulted with academic advisors in The University of Akron’s (UA) College of Engineering to hear what they’re seeing when meeting with students for the first time, and what tips they have for high school teachers to better prepare their students for success.

The Univeristy of Akron College of Engineering academic advisors.Pictured: Diane Burrowbridge (left) and Gail Tankersley (right)

It's no surprise: Students experience growing pains during their first few months at college

UA engineering freshman spend an average of 8-12 hours per week outside of the classroom studying for a four-credit math course, a time commitment that can be a big adjustment for students who spent only a few hours a week studying for all of their high school courses combined.  While these 8-12 hours spent on one math class may seem to be an enormous outlay of time for freshmen engineering students, their faculty know that is only scratching the surface of what is required to be a successful engineering student. It takes time to go to tutoring, attend office hours with their instructors, meet with a study group, complete extra homework problems, take practice tests, etc. Speaking of time, many students don’t realize the amount of freedom they’ll have once in college.

"How to manage their time is a whole new world for them and can lead to distractions and reinforce poor study habits,” says Diane Burrowbridge, Coordinator of Academic Advising for the College of Engineering.

When students get their first low grade on a test (usually a math test) they are shocked.  Many of them have never seen a grade that low in their academic lives.

“I see it all the time. Students admit that they haven’t developed strong study skills in high school,” says Gail Tankersley, Academic Advisor for the College of Engineering. “They’re excellent at memorization, but when it comes to applying concepts, they struggle.”

What can high school teachers do to help students build a set of study skills?  Advisors suggest encouraging students to find their ideal study spot such as their home or coffee shop where there are fewer distractions. Students should designate the same time every day to study there and block out the time on their calendar weeks in advance, so that their time is already spoken for.

Also, because many college math courses do not allow students to use a calculator, many students have a hard time adjusting. Whenever possible, encourage your students to solve math problems without calculators.

Help students challenge themselves with math and science courses

In recent years, UA academic advisers in the College of Engineering have reported an increase in the number of conversations with students who have expressed an interest in engineering and other STEM careers without understanding the implications of such a choice.  Oftentimes, students confuse an avocation with a vocation.  For instance, students often report that they enjoy working on cars and thus would like to be a mechanical engineer, not realizing what mechanical engineers actually do.  More importantly, although they realize that they will have to take many math and science classes, too often, they do not realize the important role that mathematics plays in becoming a successful engineer. 

There are always success stories of students who start with developmental math and then go on to become a brilliant engineer. But winding one’s way through three or four developmental math courses and then taking a college algebra and pre-calc course before starting the calculus sequence takes time, money, and persistence. Advisors recommend that high school math teachers push students to challenge themselves to develop strong math and science skills. Whenever possible, students should take AP or honors chemistry, physics, and pre-calculus/calculus courses.

Ideally, incoming freshman engineering students should start the math sequence with Calculus I. Most freshman, however, do not realize that their ACT/SAT scores drive their math placement in college. For some students, that math placement score places them far off from where they should place in order to be on track for the engineering curriculum. 

“Observation tells us that students who do not shrink from the rigors of a strong math and science curriculum in high school stand a much better chance of success in college,” says John Lanshe, Academic Advisor for the College of Engineering.  “The further students have gone in math, the better. Students who complete chemistry and physics do better.”

Students also need to not lose sight of the importance of strong algebra skills as an engineering major, and should continue developing and strengthening these skills along with calculus. 

UA advisors also suggest that high school teachers occasionally give students college-formatted math exams to show that college math tests involve comprehending, remembering, and applying a greater volume of information than students are used to exhibiting on high school math tests. Along with your students, review college curriculum guides online so that your students know what classes they need to prepare for more rigorously while they are still in high school. Conduct timed drills of math tests so that students get used to exhibiting math acuity within a specific time frame.

Don’t overlook the importance of solid writing skills

Successful engineers possess a deep understanding of the technical skills required to do their jobs but also understand that the job often requires them to communicate their ideas and rationale for various projects in written formats that have to be clear, concise and credible. 

“We see so many talented students who need extra support with their writing skills,” says Tankersley. “Engineers often need to write technical reports. In addition, they often work with product developers, marketing and R&D teams. If engineers want their ideas accepted, they have to be able to convey what they mean precisely.”

Teachers should challenge their students to write for a non-technical audience when giving presentations or writing for their STEM classes. Assign students basic writing assignments such as business emails, executive summaries for a report, even a very simple grant proposal.

Continue to develop the always important soft skills

A strong correlation exists between soft skills, such as giving presentations, managing time well, actively listening to others, and contributing to a team project, and student success, in engineering or in any career field. Engineering is a wide and varied field that requires much more than technical aptitude.

“Soft skills are absolutely critical,” says Tankersley. “More individual and group presentations need to happen in high school. Learning effective presentation skills helps with team building and collaborative project managing. There isn’t a job out there where working on teams and committees isn’t part of the job.”

UA academic advisors also recommend providing students with long term projects that include incremental due dates to get students in the practice of sticking to deadlines and managing projects. Since design engineers develop new and better ways of doing things, they are often required to pitch their ideas to an audience. Have students pitch their ideas in front of the class. Time the pitches, and have classmates vote on the winner.

Get students excited about STEM careers, but make sure the reality check is there, too

For many students, high school educators are a student’s “first look” into possible careers. Outside of what their parents or family members do for a living, the impact teachers have at this stage of a student’s development is monumental.

“As a former high school teacher myself, I know how influential teachers are in introducing possible career paths to students,” says Tankersley. “Getting students excited by the STEM options that are prevalent in today’s society is the easy part.  At the same time, students need to really understand the career and what it takes academically to get there.”

UA academic advisors suggest offering shadowing opportunities so that their high school students can visit professional engineers at their workplace. Inviting engineers to come to class to give a presentation about what their work day is like is another way to expose students to engineering careers and hear engineering professionals already in the field talk about the importance of the academic requirements of the career field.

Dig deeply into your students' personal motivations to pursue engineering

Academic advisors at UA report that students come to them having been exposed to the “fun” side of engineering in high school but seem surprised at the rigor and discipline required to succeed in the more challenging coursework of math and science. The engineering field is indeed exciting, fun, and rewarding, but students should understand that behind every 3D structural image of a bridge or lab experiment is a process that requires planning, strategic thinking, often complex math equations, and major technical skills. Helping STEM students develop a deeper understanding of the engineering field will help them in the long run.

“For students interested in engineering, teachers should ask the question, ‘What is motivating you to be an engineer?’ If the answer is ‘I like to build things,’ use that as an opportunity to educate students as to what classes they will take as an engineering major and overall what qualities a successful engineer needs to have,” says Lanshe.

Final thoughts

High school can be an exciting opportunity for students to feed their curiosity and develop a greater understanding of the skills needed to be successful in a STEM field. As the field of engineering continues to grow, the UA College of Engineering should be an option for students who demonstrate excellence in their STEM areas and are enthusiastic about the idea of making a difference in the world. Keep challenging your students in math and science, help your students understand college engineering requirements, keep opening their minds to new and exciting possibilities of STEM careers, and help them develop strong communication and study skills. With your support, they are well on their way to becoming a successful engineer.

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