This work in progress describes a program recently implemented at our institution to proactively prepare students to deal with poor mental health and periods of intense stress. There is a notable absence in American academic literature on engineering student mental health at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. While considerable research has been done on student wellbeing, very few studies specifically target engineering students. This is troubling as a significant number of people are expected to undergo a mental health crisis each year. Furthermore, the regions of the brain used to process the type of information taught in a typical engineering course are negatively impacted by poor mental health and emotional trauma. We are in the midst of a multi-year study to understand the extent to which our students are experiencing poor mental health and emotional trauma and how this may impact their academic progress.
Background on problem
Sixty-four percent of students who experience mental health problems in college and withdraw from school do so because of their mental health issues, according to a 2012 survey report, College Students Speak, released by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Our team piloted a set of modules deployed over six weeks as a part of a summer bridge program for incoming freshmen. The existing summer bridge program is focused on calculus readiness. Our program, called the Identity and Transitions Laboratory (ITL) covers imposter syndrome, stress management, the formation of culturally affirming engineering identity, coping mechanisms, and how to identify warning signs of an emerging mental health crisis. The project team includes a doctoral student who led the design and implementation of the program, a mental health professional who serves as the engineering liaison for students in our campus counseling center and participated in the sessions, and members of the engineering faculty and staff. At the end of the pilot, ITL was adopted as a permanent part of the existing summer bridge program, which we believe lends legitimacy to this effort. This allowed for a second year of program implementation and observation, for which we are analyzing data.
Background on supporting theory
The ITL program is grounded in a subset of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. After extensive consultation with mental health providers, it was theorized that this methodology would be appealing to engineering students, as it utilizes language like “problem-solving” and uses discreet, stressful life events to build generalizable wellness skills. All students in this program were matriculating into their first year of engineering studies and therefore were sharing a potentially stressful life event. Based on this, attention was paid to cohort development and encouraging students to problem-solve together.
The first cohort (n=33) was provided opportunities to submit anonymous feedback throughout the program, complete an end of program assessment, and received requests to fill out a follow-up survey after their first semester. Follow-up survey questions were also designed to determine if information learned in ITL was disseminated to students who were not in the program through their participating peers.
We also obtained the grades and determined semester-to-semester and year-to-year retention for participating students. This data is being compared to similar students who did not participate in the program. Cohort 2 (n=27) to date has also submitted anonymous feedback through the program and completed three different end of program assessments. They have not yet completed their first semester and upon completion will receive the same survey as Cohort 1.
Student approval of the program was high in the first iteration, however students did provide useful constructive criticism, which was incorporated into the second implementation of the ITL. Preliminary feedback from the Cohort 2 is almost unanimous in that students were enthusiastic about the program and supported continued implementation of ITL for future cohorts. In this paper, we will provide further details on the specific survey responses from students in the first two cohorts along with class-specific data on retention and progress toward degree including term grade point averages. We will also provide reflections from students on how the information was used in various instances either by themselves or shared with peers.
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