Pointing to statistics showing U.S. students are falling behind other countries in their understanding of STEM subjects, industry leaders for years have been trumpeting the need for American universities to produce more home-grown engineers. Attracting students to the field hasn't been so much the problem as it has in retaining them. Studies show retention rates at U.S. engineering schools average only 56%, with some schools keeping just 30%, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. For minority students and those from disadvantaged school districts, the numbers are higher.
At Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA, the engineering faculty is drawing help from alumni and the private sector in establishing a program to retain students from "under-resourced" high schools. The Engineering Success Alliance (ESA), now its third year, provides support in academics, professional belonging, and balancing academics with other aspects of campus life.
"The program tries to do a number of things," says Keith Buffinton, engineering school dean. "It's tailored to the needs of the students. Not all of them suffer academically."
What they may lack is a social or family network to advise them about academics or college and the expectations that go along with the experience, or in dealing with an environment that differs radically from where they call home. Those are just two non-academic circumstances that cause such students to leave the program. To bridge that gap, students draw from an advisory committee comprised of 12 engineering professionals, many of the Bucknell alumni, who mentor them not only on academics but also guide them through the early years of college in a community many have never experienced.
"This isn't just about minority students," says Karen Marosi, associate dean of the engineering school. "Especially if they are the first generation [to attend college], they don't understand the mechanics [of university life]. They're without the experience to find the best road through college." Leveraging the "academic capital" of the advisory committee helps fill that role and makes the program unique, she says.
Focus on Retention
"There's many good programs to get [high school students] excited and to get them in here," says George Pierson, a Bucknell grad and CEO of Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB), the New York City-based engineering firm. "But there's very few to get them to keep on studying engineering."
Bucknell ESA students tour New York City subway project. Image: Bucknell University
ESA, funded initially with a $250,000 commitment from PB spread over five years, started in 2010 and now has 36 students enrolled, concentrating on a range of engineering disciplines that include mechanical, civil, bioengineering, electrical, chemical, and computer science. Bucknell currently has 670 students enrolled in its engineering school, so the program is starting out small.
Buffinton says the program is voluntary, with potential students invited to join after they are admitted. "All students are admissible as engineers," he says. "But here's the difference: Yes, they've had calculus, but from an inner-city school, for instance." The depth and richness of the subject often is lacking when compared to students who attended private school or a well-funded public school.
After being accepted into the program, students arrive on campus one week early, before the general student population returns, for a mandatory bridge program. School officials say the students enter the school of engineering as a "supportive cohort" provided with academic support as well as professional support drawn from the advisory committee.
Jobsite tours are one way freshman ESA students learn about engineering. Image: Bucknell University
Academically, the first two undergraduate years include tutoring, if needed, and group study sessions together with regular meetings with members of the committee. As students matriculate through the program, their mentors help with developing a professional network and internship opportunities. Ideally, they would have a job waiting for them upon graduation, or acceptance to post-graduate work.
Buffinton, Pierson, and Marosi echo the engineering industry's call for a more and diverse group of young engineers. More and more, engineering firms are working globally and in diverse communities and executives want to hire those who match such a program. Pierson says global giant PB hires about 75 entry-level engineers annually.
Unfortunately, notes Buffinton, diverse students often attend under-resourced high schools unable to offer more than the basic courses. Students have the grades to be accepted into an engineering program but haven't been prepared for a rigorous math and technical curriculum that freshman students must navigate before approaching high-level engineering concepts.
Diversity is also a two-way street and Bucknell, a private university located in central, rural Pennsylvania, has to work hard to attract students from urban areas, notes Marosi. "Often this is not a community where they would see themselves," she says. "We're creating that environment, where these students may not think of Bucknell that way."
Ultimately, all of the engineering students will benefit from a more diverse student population, say the educators. Such an environment should allow them to smoothly slip into what is becoming a more diversified workforce.
"We view it as part of an overall effort to get more engineers into the workforce," says Pierson. "We simply need more students in the engineering field."
Because the program is so new, Buffinton says the focus has been on smoothing out the rough spots for the students in their first two years. In another five years, he's looking for the program to become established and able to point to recent graduates successfully established within the industry.
"The goal is to perfect the program, fund it, and then export it," says Pierson. "We're hoping other universities see this as a model."
This isn’t just about minority students. Especially if they are the first generation [to attend college], they don’t understand the mechanics [of university life]. They’re without the experience to find the best road through college.
Karen Marosi, associate dean, Bucknell University
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