Large grant funds study of student pathways, institutional policies

September 16, 2015  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A project in Purdue’s Department of Engineering Education that could open the field to a greater cross-section of students has received a multi-million-dollar funding grant.

The National Science Foundation announced a continuing grant of $4.01 million for the project led by Matt Ohland, a professor of engineering education. The project is expected to run for five years, beginning March 1.

Ohland says the work seeks to expand upon the number of colleges and universities participating in the Multiple-Institution Database for Investigating Longitudinal Development (MIDFIELD). The database originally was established with the cooperation of 11 institutions.

The project – which looks to add as many as 20 more schools each year – will examine the trends among engineering school students and the policies dictated by those trends.

“A lot of education decisions are made based on looking at the number of students who start a program and at the number of students who finish,” Ohland said. “But they’re not always the same students. So when you make determinations on that basis, you can make a lot of wrong decisions.”

Instead, students who start with a university’s engineering program can leave and be replaced by students entering the program through a variety of ways. Ohland says establishing a database with a larger number of schools through the grant will provide a greater cross-section of students to study, ranging from minorities to females to students with rural backgrounds.

“We get to see these really unique pathways that students follow that don’t follow the traditional curriculum, and yet they manage to make it through and get their degree,” he said.

Russell Long, director of project assessment in the Department of Engineering Education, said there is no current database like what is being proposed.

Ohland, Long and fellow project investigators, Susan Lord, chair and professor of electrical engineering at the University of San Diego; Marisa Orr, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Louisiana Tech; and Catherine Brawner, president of Research Triangle Educational Consultants, intend to add both small and large, public and private engineering colleges in each state. The variety will allow more comparison of student outcomes based on institutional differences, Ohland said.

 More than 10 million students will be part of the database once completed, accounting for more than half of the engineering undergraduate degrees awarded in the nation each year.

“Knowing these things, we can find out what is happening in the educational system and what’s happening to specific populations of students,” Ohland said. 

Writer: Brian L. Huchel, 765-494-2084, 

Sources: Matt Ohland, 765-496-1316,

Russell Long, 765-496-9521, 

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