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Engineering school responds to industry’s call for more graduates

A key focus for the Wellington Institute of Technology (WelTec) is on ensuring engineering students succeed with their studies.

Embedded in the New Zealand Diploma in Engineering (NZDE) is a small, but highly successful course – DE4102 Engineering Mathematics.

This understated title gives very little away in terms of its significance, but it can be a deal breaker in terms of getting on the pathway to achieving an engineering qualification. 

Penelope De Boer who holds a BSc in Maths and Economics and went on to get her secondary school teaching qualifications came to work at WelTec two years ago after 14 years at Victoria University Wellington teaching first year BCA students.

“I actually retired, but found I really missed the interaction with students.  I realised I wanted to continue to change the way people perceive maths and break down the barriers to study,” says De Boer. 

De Boer’s approach to her students reflects her cool, calm but determined style, “On day one of the course I tell my students – you’re not bad at maths, you’ve just had a bad experience so far. Anyone can do maths. I will help you pass.”

And that is exactly what she has done. In fact her results are outstanding. In 2012 De Boer’s class comprised 80 students – most of whom had failed maths at school or who had been accredited with NCEA maths, but had not passed their first round of assessment at WelTec.

The mid-year pass rate was 54%. By the end of the year with a new intake, which included some repeat students, the success rate had leapt to 68%. By mid 2013, 72% of Penny’s students passed. A remarkable achievement considering Penny teaches students who to date are at the bottom end of the maths achievement spectrum. 

“Even talking about maths is a huge turn off for these students. No one who has failed maths wants to be put back into a maths class. I do my very best to change the student’s perception by taking students right back to the very beginning when they were first given really basic fractions to solve at primary school," says De Boer.

"I have to do this so everyone becomes confident with the basics. At some point these students have decided they cannot do maths (or have had this reinforced through their schooling) and this negative feedback has impacted on everything they have tried to study since." 

De Boer’s classes are a mix of school leavers and older people who have been working and have now decided on engineering as a career path. 

“The students have great ideas and will make great engineers, but they need the foundation building blocks in place so they can tackle the higher end engineering problems which are part of their tertiary studies with an Institute of Technology & Polytechnic (ITP)," says De Boer.

"My maths programme focuses on algebra, arithmetic, calculus, statistics and complex numbers. I teach the students in a very hands on way. There is a written assignment each week plus a test.” Scary stuff?  “No,” says De Boer.

“The students are enrolled in MyMathLabGlobal where they can practice online at a time to suit them as much as they want or need to. They can ask questions online and get immediate feedback. As a teacher I can also see quickly and clearly how a student is progressing or not with their study and set them tasks to complete suitable to their current ability level.”

“Students come to tertiary study with a mix of backgrounds. This is true for universities and ITPs. They may have gaps in their secondary schooling or been away from study for awhile. Good maths is essential for problem-solving which is key for higher level engineering study,” says De Boer.

“Securing a good throughput of students with the appropriate skills is essential to increasing the number of engineering students achieving higher level engineering diplomas and degrees,” says Linda Sissons, Wellington Institute of Technology Chief Executive. 

“This year we are planning to deliver more than 200 EFTS in higher level engineering programmes. This is in line with employer demand for graduates with specific skill sets. Feedback from industry is clear. We need to be producing more NZDE and Bachelor of Engineering Technology graduates."

“With the work we are doing now to provide students with the right level of maths, physics, algebra, calculus and statistics skills we should secure a much stronger pipeline of students who can succeed in their engineering studies,” says Sissons. 

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