WRITER: Kristen Sullivan
Nearly 60 students transferring into the engineering programs at New Mexico State University and Howard University this fall semester received an extra boost to help them with the transition and become successful engineering students. They were participants in a National Science Foundation-funded Breaking New Ground program led by engineering faculty at the respective universities.
“The program provides a great opportunity to meet students before school starts, network, interact with faculty and participate in an entrepreneurial-based workshop focused on the engineering design process,” said Edward Pines, department head of industrial engineering at NMSU and co-principal investigator for the program. “Today’s engineering students want to tackle challenges that have a global impact. They already gain a comprehensive technical education as undergraduates, but they also need a mindset and skill set to turn their ideas into practical solutions for real-world problems.”
The Breaking New Ground program was created to introduce students to the method of discovery and exploration that is behind many of today’s successful technology-based businesses through the application of an innovative engineering design process. During the five-day session, students were challenged with solving a problem based on feedback from end-use customers and testing alternative or competing solutions. This problem-solving approach is based on the Lean LaunchPad® model for entrepreneurship developed by Steve Blank and adopted by the National Science Foundation. It emphasizes experiential learning, a flipped classroom and immediate feedback as a way to engage students with real-world innovation and entrepreneurship.
The Broadening Participation program focused on teaching students to learn by proposing and immediately testing hypotheses. They were encouraged to get out of the classroom, talk to customers, partners and competitors and encountered the real-world uncertainty of commercializing innovations and creating new ventures. The program equipped participating students with transferable skills that will enhance their transition into the engineering curriculum.
As recipients of a National Science Foundation three-year grant for Broadening Participation in Engineering, the two schools are seeking to bridge a non-traditional pathway for minority students to become part of a much-needed engineering workforce in the United States.
“The general public perception is that transfer students understand and are used to the academic expectations of higher education. On the contrary, studies show that transfer students experience just as much anxiety as first-time, full-time freshmen,” said Steve Stochaj, interim engineering dean at NMSU. “We want to introduce transfer students early on to innovative design, so they can become actively engaged in the program and feel like they are a part of our community right away.”
Transfer students often miss opportunities introduced in the freshman and sophomore curricula designed to improve their interest, performance and retention in engineering. Early studies have shown that students who participate in early experiential learning activities have higher degrees of interest, performance and retention in engineering study.
“It is a great way to get to know campus and other students,” said Nathan Karle, a transfer student from Whatcomm Community College in Washington, who transferred to NMSU to major in mechanical engineering.
Transfer students participating in the Breaking New Ground program are not only students transferring from community colleges, but also include incoming freshmen with dual credits and students transferring from other four-year institutions.
Phoenix Carter, an incoming freshman with dual credits from Deming, New Mexico, said she chose to attend NMSU after participating in the BEST Robotics Competition, an annual competition NMSU hosts to engage middle- and high-school students in STEM curriculum and engineering.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to familiarize myself with NMSU before I am overwhelmed with my classwork,” Carter said.
An incoming transfer student at Howard University from the University of Maryland, College Park, Banks Agurawa said, “The Breaking New Ground program was definitely an enriching experience. Learning more about the engineering process of developing a product was awesome. I would definitely recommend this program to another transferring incoming STEM major student.”
Luke Nogales, assistant professor of engineering technology at NMSU, and Grant Warner, professor of mechanical engineering at Howard, two of six instructors of the Breaking New Ground program, said it is important to teach students how to think through the engineering design process.
“We’re teaching them the basic process of how a product comes to life,” Nogales said. “Within a company, they will be expected to complete many of the same tasks and this teaches them how their role fits into the company.”
Said Warner, “The goal of the program was to expose students to the processes used to drive innovation. Although these tools are closely associated with startups, they are not exclusively associated with them. Many of today’s leading companies are looking for innovation to continue to drive profitability. We are looking to this program to provide fundamental 21st century employment skills.”
Participants are from varied locations, including New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, West Virginia and Mexico. Female students comprised a little more than one-third of the participants.
Other professors who presented the Breaking New Ground program at NMSU include Rolfe Sassenfeld, assistant professor of electronics and computer engineering technology; Phillip De Leon, professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Stephen Kanim, physics professor. At Howard University, Warner and Legand Burge, professor of systems and computer science, taught the program.
NMSU and Howard University are a part of the Pathways to Innovation Program, created and run by Epicenter at Stanford University and VentureWell, to help institutions transform the experience of their undergraduate engineering students and fully incorporate innovation and entrepreneurship into a range of courses as well as strengthen co- and extra-curricular offerings.
Pathways member institutions receive access to models for integrating entrepreneurship into engineering curriculum, custom online resources, guidance from a community of engineering and entrepreneurship faculty, and membership in a national network of schools with similar goals.