High schools and universities must work together to narrow the preparation gap.
Retaining incoming engineering students through graduation continues to be an important issue. Doing so benefits the lives and careers of young professionals, the strength of the American workforce, technology development and innovation, and national competitiveness and security.
There are many reasons students leave engineering as a first major, but in my experience, two resound clearly: the difficult social aspects of being a first-year engineer, including the lack of a support structure and a sense of not "being an engineer," and the huge disparity among students in precollege math education. At many institutions, both problems affect students most prominently in the first two years. Data from my alma mater, Texas A&M, show that some 90 percent who leave engineering do so as freshmen or sophomores.
Universities across the nation are making impressive progress in addressing the social aspects. Support networks have been catalyzed by clustering classes by subject and major, and through group tutoring sessions, improved mentoring and advising, and engineering living-learning communities. To help students identify themselves as engineers, programs offer early handson design projects, undergraduate research, and discipline-specific team projects.
Gaps in math education remain a problem, however, and one that I have witnessed in Texas. I graduated in 2003 from DeBakey High School for Health Professions, a magnet school in Houston. DeBakey offered a variety of pre-AP and AP courses, including Trigonometry, non-calculus-based Physics, Calculus AB (I) and BC (II), and Statistics. With these opportunities, I completed high school with Calculus I and II AP credits. Yet in my first year at college, I discovered that most of my peers had not taken Trigonometry and a few hadn't taken Algebra II. That means that coming out of high school, these students experienced an up-to-four-year gap in math education, compared with students from DeBakey. This completely took me by surprise! I also discovered that other Texas high schools, particularly those in small rural towns, didn't offer advanced math courses, muchless AP or dual-credit versions.
Up until 2006, Texas required three years of math credits and mandated only Algebra I and Geometry for high school graduation. Since then, the state government has …