Writer: Kristen Sullivan
New Mexico State University, a state institution serving more than 13,000 students, and Howard University, a Washington, D.C.-based, private college with fewer than 7,000 students, may seem to be dissimilar. Yet, they share a strong commonality: they both serve largely minority populations. Now they will join forces to improve retention and recruitment of under-represented minorities from community colleges into their engineering programs.
As recipients of a National Science Foundation three-year grant for Broadening Participation in Engineering, the two schools will develop new strategies to bridge a non-traditional pathway for minority students to become part of a much-needed engineering workforce in the United States.
Nearly half of all first-year black and Hispanic students enrolled in two-year colleges report that their goal is to obtain a post-graduate degree; yet only 3.7 percent of black students and 2.6 percent of Hispanic students go on to realize that goal, reports the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Community colleges enroll 51 percent of all Hispanic students and 41 percent of black students, representing a rich pool from which to draw engineering students. NMSU, designated as a Hispanic-serving institution, has a student population comprising nearly 50 percent Hispanic students. Howard University, designated as a historically black university, has a student population that is more than 90 percent African-American, African-Caribbean.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling reports that more than 30 percent of college students transfer to another college or university during the course of their undergraduate education; yet only 14 percent of all engineering bachelor’s degrees were obtained by students who previously received associate’s degrees.
The strategy developed by NMSU and Howard will focus on implementing and evaluating a new paradigm for teaching engineering that includes a summer immersion course focused on innovation and entrepreneurship that augments the traditional engineering curriculum.
Originated by Steve Blank, the Lean LaunchPad model integrates a business startup experience as a platform to develop research, analytical thinking and problem-solving skills for engineering students. The end goal of the NSF project is a scalable model based upon the Lean LaunchPad immersion course that can be implemented at other colleges and universities to increase the success of minority students in engineering.
“Howard University has similar curriculum models and minority education outreach programs. We are both involved in NSF’s Pathways to Innovation Program and the industry-led PACE partnership,” said Patricia A. Sullivan, associate dean of the College of Engineering and co-principal investigator for the project. “This partnership with Howard University is a natural alignment for us.”
PACE (Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education) is an industry-led partnership that supports select academic institutions throughout the world to encourage students to develop skills vital to the automotive industry. NMSU has been a PACE institution since 2005, receiving over $120 million in in-kind engineering software for use in the classroom as well as opportunities for students to participate in international engineering design competitions.
The National Science Foundation Engineering Pathways to Innovation program, led by Stanford University, helps participating institutions integrate innovation and entrepreneurship in undergraduate engineering curricula. NMSU and Howard were selected to participate in this program last year.
“Transfer students wishing to major in engineering face some unique challenges. For example, academic preparation for a student wishing to major in engineering at a four-year institution is considerably different from majors at a community college that do not have a pre- or general-engineering designation. The general public perception is that transfer students are more mature, understand higher education procedures, and are used to the academic expectations of higher education. On the contrary, studies show that transfer students experience just as much anxiety and lack of confidence as first-time full-time freshmen.” Sonya Cooper, associate dean of the College of Engineering and principal investigator, said. “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.”
NMSU has transfer agreements with local community colleges such as Doña Ana Community College in Las Cruces, Central New Mexico in Albuquerque, and El Paso Community College in El Paso. Sullivan stated that the new NSF partnership will also help Howard University adopt NMSU’s successful transfer model to reach out to their local community colleges.
“Our goal is to develop a program that will educate transfer students about innovation and enterprise creation,” Edward Pines, department head of industrial engineering and co-primary investigator, said. “It will be a great opportunity to help transfer students excel through developing skills they will need to succeed in college and their future profession.”
Additionally, transfer students often miss opportunities introduced in the freshman and sophomore curricula designed to improve their interest, performance and retention in engineering study. Early studies have shown that students who participate in early experiential learning activities have higher degrees of interest, performance and retention in engineering study.
For example, the College of Engineering introduced the Freshman Year Experience this fall. Students are assigned peer mentors in conjunction with a course focused on experiential, hands-on learning designed to motivate them while taking math and science prerequisites for upper- division engineering courses. A valuable component of this model includes cooperation from our English department to provide dedicated engineering sections of English composition tied to the introductory engineering course. The English instructors will work collaboratively with the ENGR 100 instructors to assure that students learn how to use writing as a learning tool,
Their engineering education culminates with a capstone design course through which they utilize
their accumulated engineering skills on a design project. These projects, often developed in partnership with industry, culminate with an annual presentation of capstone projects at the end of the spring semester.
“The Broadening Participation project will offer a bridge for the transfer students to fulfill the gap of innovative experiences they may have missed early on in the newly designed freshman year experience and sophomore year engagement,” said Sullivan.