Cal Poly Professor Receives Grant to Track, Improve Mental Wellness of Engineering Students

SAN LUIS OBISPO — For engineering students, all-nighters and long hours in labs can be seen as a badge of honor, said Andrew Danowitz, an assistant professor in the Electrical Engineering Department. 

But that drive to excess is one of the many factors that can impact mental wellness.

“As an undergraduate and graduate student, I viewed academic success as a key part of my identity,” he said. “And I witnessed many people – peers and myself – burn out trying to achieve academic perfection.”

The National Science Foundation recently funded Danowitz’s proposal to study mental wellness in engineering — a project that Danowitz expects to lead to wellness action plan. The project officially began this month.

“We have funding for at least three years,” Danowitz said, “and we expect to collect a wealth of data over that period.”

While Cal Poly has collected data on student wellness, Danowitz was particularly interested in engineering students. So he collaborated with Kacey Beddoes, project director for San Jose State’s Research Foundation and College of Engineering Dean’s Office. Along with Geneva Reynaga-Abiko, director of counseling services at Cal Poly’s Student Affairs, the trio will research engineering student wellness using surveys and in-person interviews over the next three years. Students are expected to assist with data collection, data analysis and publishing.

The study will follow the same group of participants over that three-year span, which will be incorporated with information gleaned from 10 partner institutions to see whether mental wellness significantly changes as engineering students progress through their programs. The researchers will also look to see which mental wellness indicators, if any, are most closely tied to student retention and success.

Both Danowitz and Beddoes were awarded with separate budgets of $174,000 for the collaboration.

“Based on our findings, we plan to develop recommendations for university faculty, students and administrators to maximize mental wellness and student success for engineering students,” Danowitz said. “We also plan to work our findings into a model of student retention in an effort to help guide future studies in the area of engineering education.”

Increasing diversity and inclusion is one of the College of Engineering’s three main goals in the current capital campaign, and resources have already been dedicated toward that. This study, Danowitz said, could help promote diversity and inclusion on campus. 

“Engineering suffers from chronically low retention rates among students from all backgrounds,” Danowitz said. “If this study shows that mental wellness is linked with retention overall, then we’ll be providing colleges and universities with a new set of tools to help graduate a diverse class of engineers.”

Contact: Pat Pemberton
805-756-7402, 805-235-0555; ppembert@calpoly.edu

September 6, 2019

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