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Engineering Schools Try Active Learning Classrooms to Lift Retention

Two engineering schools, one in New Mexico and the other in Texas, are investing in active learning classrooms to increase freshman retention, including among Hispanic women. New Mexico State University and Texas A&M University are turning to spaces that are set up to encourage teamwork and use furniture that integrates with technology.

At the New Mexico institution, faculty designed an active learning-based Engineering 100 course to better engage first-year students as part of a freshman year experience, with a special emphasis on Latina and Hispanic female students (at an institution where 54 percent of students are Hispanic and Latinx and 53 percent are female). In that course, students learn about design processes, work on technical and communication skills and learn through teamwork. Over the last four years, retention in that course has increased by more than 5 percent. Last year, the university opened an engineering learning community, an active learning space where faculty and students can meet after class for workshops, social events, mentoring and speakers.

To amplify those efforts, NMSU's College of Engineering applied for and won a Steelcase Education Active Learning Grant, which provided for an active learning classroom to support up to 32 students, with furniture, design review, installation and onsite training.

According to Elizabeth Howard, program manager of student affairs in the College of Engineering, in an essay on the project, goals for the new space include more collaboration, "removing barriers to learning (physical and organizational), ensuring students get the help they need to complete difficult classes and degree programs, and helping students develop interpersonal and intrapersonal skills so they can excel at work and bring engineering expertise back to their communities."

Texas A&M has plans to increase its engineering student population to 25,000 by 2025 (in its "25 by 25" program). The expectation is that much of that growth will come through better student retention. This fall the institution opened a new engineering education complex that includes 18 100-person and 14 50-person active learning spaces. Those feature 900 Steelcase-designed "active media" worktables with multi-device sharing screens and T1V ThinkHub Connect software that allows content to be created and moved "off screen" to be brought back later as it's needed; content can come from laptops, document cameras, web-based video and student table displays.

"Space is very important. In fact, the learning space must support active learning for it to be successful," said Assistant Vice Chancellor Sunay Palsole, in a statement. Palsole, who has designed workshops to help faculty take advantage of the new classrooms, noted that improving retention just 5 percent per year will enable the university to meet its retention goals. "The effect is much the same as compound interest. You improve retention, you graduate more people."

"I believe that the only way we can improve education, especially for those who have been traditionally underserved, is to try new strategies — strategies that can provide pathways for our students to achieve their goals," wrote Howard. "In NMSU Engineering's experience, active learning spaces are a crucial step in the right direction.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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