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Vicki May Headshot

Engineers Are Not Smart

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What word would you use to describe engineers or engineering? Every year I survey over 200 middle school students and ask them that same question. This year was no different from previous years: 'smart' is by far the most common word used to describe engineers. Another survey conducted a couple of years ago by Intel found that high school students were also most likely to use the word 'smart' to describe engineers. 'Smart' seems like a good word? Who doesn't want to be smart? But is labeling engineers as 'smart' a positive thing?

I see lots of students who come to college thinking they want to be engineers but then they take a science or math course, find it difficult or get a poor grade and abandon their plans to study engineering. Based on research that we conducted a few years ago at Dartmouth we found that one of the main reasons cited by students for abandoning plans to study math, science, or engineering was a poor exam grade. Other studies have found that approximately 40 percent of students intending to study science or engineering end up switching to a non-science/engineering major. Many more students never make it to a science or math course because they hear from upper-classmen that these courses are difficult.

A study that included Dartmouth researchers and students examined possible predictors to persisting with and abandoning plans to study math, science, or engineering in a range of institutions. They found that individuals with quantitative scores on the SAT exam below the average of their in-major peers were more likely to leave the major. The key here is that it was not the absolute score that mattered but the relative score. In other words, two students with the same SAT score but at institutions with different SAT averages would have different likelihoods of remaining in the major. Since SAT scores are not public information, students must have been using their own perceptions to compare their abilities with others.

So how does this all fit together to help us understand how to attract and keep students in engineering, math and science? Why does a poor grade on a single exam result in so many students abandoning their plans? Can mindset help us better understand what is happening? Professor Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, has been studying mindset for decades and has written numerous articles and books on the topic. According to Dweck, someone with a fixed mindset believes that intelligence is a fixed trait, that you are born smart or dumb and you can't do much to change your intelligence. In contrast, someone with a growth mindset believes that intelligence is malleable and that you can learn and grow if you put in enough effort.

Going back to a student who gets a poor grade on an exam. If that student has a growth mindset, they will likely be disappointed but will not be deterred; they may decide that they need to change the way they study or seek help but they won't automatically quit. A student with a fixed-mindset, however, is more likely to believe that the poor grade means that they are not smart enough and thus abandon their plans to continue in the subject since they believe there is really not much they can do to change. Consider the following comment made by a student who decided to leave engineering after receiving a poor grade on an exam: "That was really rough after coming from being at the top of my class in high school. I went into the exam feeling well prepared and then got the test back and I was in shock." This student, like most Dartmouth students, is used to being at the top of the class and has probably been told for years that s/he is 'smart.' My guess is that this student has a fixed mindset (after years of being told they are 'smart' it is natural for students to develop a fixed mindset) and thus a poor exam grade was very upsetting. S/he was probably thinking: "What if I'm not as smart as I think? What if others find out that I'm not smart? Better to not take any chances and switch to a different major."

Dweck has found that students with a fixed-mindset are less likely to tackle challenging problems, preferring instead to continue to work on easy problems where they feel confident that they can succeed, thus, continuing to prove that they are 'smart.'

Of course I want 'smart' students in my classes but not necessarily the ones who can memorize facts, pass tests, and regurgitate information. I want students who are willing to think critically, try new things, fail and learn from their mistakes. Given the right support and with the right level of dedication anyone is capable of becoming an engineer; they may not get all As but anyone can learn and grow and succeed. It's not 'smart' I'm looking for, but in Dweck's words, students who are "hard-working, creative, and resilient in the face of failure." That's what makes truly great engineers. Maybe more students would stick with engineering if they realized that failure is part of getting there.