College Engineering Programs Focus on Hands-on Learning

Large lectures and an ultracompetitive culture are giving way to high-tech problem-solving.

Many engineering programs are turning to experiential and student-centered learning to retain more students.
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This fall, the University of Delaware will debut a 194,000-square-foot Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Laboratory, in which eight labs adjoin four small classrooms with furniture on wheels that can easily be configured for work in teams. 

Purdue introduced the i2i Learning Laboratory in 2008, a cluster of seven spaces each focused on a step of the design process. A studio room, for instance, is appointed with tablet PCs, video projectors and data-acquisition equipment and is lined with wall-to-ceiling whiteboard, so groups of first-year students can gather information and hash out their ideas. 

The technology made a big impression on Claire Lang, now a mechanical engineering sophomore at Purdue. "Learning labwork really stood out for me," she says. "At Purdue, they throw you in. My professor didn't treat me as a freshman who didn't know anything. He said, 'We're now doing engineering.'" 

While lectures are by no means obsolete, many programs have reshaped them and put them online to better suit the learning styles of today's students and to free up class time for more active learning. 

Inspired by the "flipped classroom" movement gaining momentum in other fields, Purdue last year introduced a series of 15-minute online learning modules for the two-semester course Transforming Ideas to Innovation.

The modules allow students to prep on various topics ahead of time so they can spend their classtime on activities supported by the professor, teaching assistants and peer assistants, rather than dozing through a lecture. 

Such student-centered programs have reported promising outcomes. Purdue, Rowan and Harvey Mudd now boast freshman retention rates close to or above 90 percent. 

Women make up more than half of the students engaged in the Grand Challenges program at the dozen institutions that have implemented it. And Harvey Mudd is on track to graduate a majority female class of engineers in 2014.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2014" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings and data.