Why is this major foundation encouraging reflection by engineering students?

Engineers are generally forward-thinking people—researching, developing, and testing the kinds of technological innovations that move economies and societies ahead. A new grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, however, encourages undergraduate engineering students to look back.

Helmsley recently awarded $4.4 million in grants to a dozen institutions of higher education to develop and promote instructional practices that are designed to help undergraduate engineering students reflect on their experiences. Reflection involves examining early experiences to draw meaning from them, then defining how that meaning will guide future actions.

Now it may be tempting to dismiss all this as too touchy-feely or as the “Oprah-fication” of engineering. However, reflection has long been recognized as an important element of higher education, even in the STEM fields. “Reflection accelerates the learning that happens through experience, and so it is critical for preparing the next generation of engineers,” said Cynthia Atman, a professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington.

The Helmsley grant will focus on first- and second-year undergraduate engineering majors, especially those from student populations underrepresented in STEM. It is hoped that the reflection program will help more of these students complete their degrees and think broadly when they enter the workforce. Schools sharing in the Helmsley funds include Arizona State, California Polytechnic, Georgia Institute of Technology, Stanford, and the University of Washington.

The program to encourage reflection is consistent with Helmsley’s approach to higher education, which emphasizes increasing the number of graduates in the STEM fields, with particular attention paid to practices that improve student retention and completion, especially among underrepresented students.

Clearly, the Helmsley Trust has hit upon an area of concern. A presidential commission found that only 4 in 10 students who enter college as STEM majors go on to complete degrees in those fields, among ethnic minority students, the completion rate is even lower. So there is plenty of room for good ideas to improve these rates and encourage more persistence among STEM majors.