Rising need for engineers sharpens focus on how state teaches math
CLEMSON — Tiera Green of Summerville said she made it through her freshman-year calculus class with a B, but that she had to do some “big picture” thinking to remind herself she was on path to a computer engineering degree at Clemson University.
“I think that ability came from my parents,” said Green, now a sophomore. “They have a really strong work ethic. They’re the type of people who don’t do what they want to do, they do what they have to do, especially in the moment.”
Twenty-three researchers from across the state are coming together to learn more about why students like Green make it through calculus on their way to an engineering degree and why others falter and abandon engineering altogether.
The study will be the most in-depth ever into how the state’s education system prepares students for calculus, a basic requirement for an engineering degree. Researchers will gather data that could help create new ways of teaching not only in South Carolina but across the country, affecting the K-12 system, technical colleges and universities.
Those who walk away from engineering find themselves locked out of jobs that routinely come with six-figure salaries by mid-career. Women and other populations underrepresented in engineering are disproportionately affected.
“We would like to see roughly a third of the engineers in South Carolina be from groups currently underrepresented in engineering,” she said. “We would like to see half the engineers in South Carolina be women. Within South Carolina, that’s our ultimate goal. This project will set the stage for that. It will give us the information about where we need to focus our efforts to have maximum impact.”
The study comes as advanced manufacturing’s growth in the state drives up demand for engineers and others with engineering backgrounds. Five metro areas either completely or partially in South Carolina were rated among the nation’s top 100 metro areas for STEM workers, according to WalletHub.
The state has been very successful in attracting top-tier industry, said Elaine Craft, the director of the South Carolina Advanced Technological Education Center of Excellence.
“Employers know if they can hire engineers locally that they are likely to stay with the company,” she said. “They really want to get their engineers here rather than having to import them. Therefore, we need to be producing more for them.”
Many roads lead to an engineering degree, but all go through calculus.
National- and state-level data have shown that students who start college at a level below calculus I are much less likely to persist to a degree, whether it’s because of the class itself or associated factors, Gallagher said.
“It’s not just the math piece of it,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with recognition as an engineer. Do you see yourself as an engineer? Do you think you can do it?”
Hossein Haj-Hariri, the dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at the University of South Carolina, said math readiness is key to stemming attrition in engineering programs.
“That attrition seems to afflict state students more than out-of-state students,” he said. “Do students need to be calculus-ready in order to succeed in engineering? The answer today is yes, the way the curricula is set up. Given that, I think we have to do what this proposal suggests. That’s the short-term fix that’s needed to really increase the numbers and improve the chances of our own students.”
A longer-term solution lies in working with communities and the K-12 system to ramp up STEM education, Haj-Hariri said.
The search for new ways to prepare students will begin with a two-year study that includes four 4-year institutions, all 16 state technical colleges, and 118 high schools in 43 school districts along the Interstate 95 corridor, where the poverty rate is 70 percent or higher. Researchers also plan to survey 8,800 engineering students at universities and colleges across the state.
The potential impact is immense, said Sez Atamturktur, the Provost’s Distinguished Professor and assistant vice president for research and development at Clemson.
“We will be providing better education for South Carolina residents and smoother pathways for students to reach a degree,” she said. “It focuses on South Carolina as a state and a testbed — a laboratory — to study.”
The study is funded by the National Science Foundation and brings together researchers from Clemson University, the University of South Carolina, South Carolina State University, The Citadel, the South Carolina Technical College System, the South Carolina Advanced Technological Education Center of Excellence and South Carolina’s Coalition for Mathematics and Science.
Lisa Benson, the editor of the Journal of Engineering Education, said she has found in her own research that high school students who lack resources, including access to pre-calculus and calculus courses, find themselves at a distinct disadvantage if they want to pursue an engineering degree.
“They start out in a hole with respect to what they need to succeed in engineering and they spend a lot of time and energy digging themselves out,” said Benson, who is a professor of engineering and science education at Clemson.
“This is like a double-whammy – they lack what they need to get started in calculus, then are stressed by having to catch up as well as keep up once they get into an engineering degree program. This project has the potential to revolutionize how we prepare students for studying engineering in South Carolina.”
Those who do earn a degree are well-positioned to make a comfortable salary. Fifteen of the top 20 highest paying bachelor’s degrees by salary potential are in engineering, according to Payscale. All are math- and science-intensive.
For each degree, early-career pay was above $60,000 and mid-career pay was above $100,000.
Technical colleges are included in the South Carolina study because they represent a starting point for some students who later transfer to four-year institutions to complete their engineering degrees.
Hope Rivers, executive vice president of the South Carolina Technical College System, said the study could help draw attention to what students need to do to succeed, a message that could also hit home with their parents.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to bring to the table more students interested in engineering,” she said. “Some may not realize the path they need to be on to be successful.”
Researchers will begin by looking at the “pathways” that lead students to college, which could include a range of factors from peer pressure to guidance counselor advice. Then researchers will talk to groups of students and faculty members along those pathways.
“We’ll look at students who came into calculus I and students who didn’t and look at the differences, the factors along the way that made a difference,” Gallagher said. “That will help us identify factors that haven’t shown up in the national data, such as the impact of counselor recommendations in senior year or availability of courses or what their friends are telling them to take.”
Other studies have touched on some of those factors, but the South Carolina team plans to drill much deeper than previous research, producing data that quantifies what works.
The study spans all levels of education, including the K-12 system, where Tom Peters has experience as the executive director of South Carolina’s Coalition for Mathematics and Science.
“There are quite a number of barriers that kids face, particularly when they engage with calculus,” he said. “That’s an old story and we haven’t come up with any new solutions. Maybe the best way to figure out what we have been missing is to do a deep dive into data.”
Ronald Welch, dean of the School of Engineering at The Citadel, said that starting in middle school, students are offered less rigorous forms of math, even as the humanities remain standard for all.
“You can take business math or algebra,” he said. “We do algebra-based science instead of calculus-based science. If everyone had to take pre-calculus or trigonometry to graduate from high school, we would be looking at a different picture.”
“Calculus begins in third grade,” he said. “The foundation for math has to begin early on for two reasons, not only the academic preparation but the attitudinal and dispositional preparation. You’ve got to ensure that the fear of doing math is completely absent.”
Stanley N. Ihekweazu, dean of the College of Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology at South Carolina State University, is also collaborating on the grant.
Brad Putman, the associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences at Clemson, said the study could be the first step toward transforming whole regions of the state that are economically disadvantaged.
“This lays the foundation for more students from those regions to take higher paying and often more prestigious jobs,” he said. “That brings back an economic impact to that region of the state. It also brings back knowledge that gets transmitted to other people about how to succeed and how to persist.”
Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences at Clemson, leads the study as the principal investigator.
“This is a statewide, cross-disciplinary collaboration that sets the stage for a transformative impact not only in South Carolina but across the nation,” he said. “The data we gather will deepen our understanding of how students prepare for calculus and help develop new ways of broadening participation in the engineering and science workforce.”
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 174497. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view of the National Science Foundation.