Connections: The Importance of Learning Communities

Colorado School of Mines piloted an integrated engineering program in ’94 and ’95 much like IMPULSE discussed previously. The program was designed as a response to national concern about the lack of STEM majors, in hopes that the integrated curriculum would improve retention rates and the graduation rates of “average” engineering students (where average is defined as students who do not have advanced placement opportunities or remedial classes).

While researching the state of Connections today, over a decade later, I have found that it is no longer implemented in the engineering department. A paper by Barbara Olds and Ronald Miller explains why, as well as describing the program in detail. Since the program is no longer happening, I will gloss over many of the details here and focus instead on what actually worked and is still used by the department.

Using student and faculty responses to the two trial years of integrated curricula, the engineering department at Colorado School of Mines identified that the parts of the integrated program that actually increased the retention rate *were not* the integrated curricula. Instead, aspects of the program like (a) learning communities and (b) increased mentoring by faculty and upperclassmen made a difference in the first-year students’ success rates. Consequently, the department has focused on community development, peer mentoring, and increased access to faculty for first-year students in the decade since the pilot program.

Below I am including the results from student surveys published by Olds and Miller:


The learning community development fostered by integrated engineering programs has also been documented by the NSF funded Foundations Coalition. When students who participate in the Foundations curriculum (at any of the 7 Foundations Coalition member schools) are interviewed, they comment on the following networking benefits [2]:

  1. Integrated curriculum requires them to learn to work in teams and to handle team conflicts.
  2. Collaboration improves the individual’s learning experience from seeing different points of view than their own.
  3. Seeing others in the learning process helps students reflect on their own learning style and how they learn new information best.
  4. Students turn to each other first for help when they struggle with an idea or concept, then TA’s/tutors, and finally the professors.

[1] The Effect of a First-Year Integrated Engineering Curriculum on Graduation Rates and Student Satisfaction: A Longitudinal Study. Barbara Olds and Ronald Miller

[2] Learning Communities across the Foundation Coalition


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