PRISM - American Society for Engineering Education - Logo FEBRUARY 2005 - VOLUME 14, NUMBER 6
Special Double Issue: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon
features
Engineering's New Look - By Thomas K. Grose - Photographs By Wyatt McSpadden

By Thomas K. Grose

THE ENGINEERING DEPARTMENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS-SAN ANTONIO HAS DONE AN IMPRESSIVE JOB OF ATTRACTING MINORITIES TO ITS PROGRAM.

When Griselda Gonzales was 16, she became a mother. Despite having a baby son to bring up, she remained a high school honors student and graduated. Eventually, she got an associate's degree in computer-aided drafting and design, and for 21/2 years worked for engineers. "But one of them told me I would never be happy anywhere until I got a bachelor's degree in engineering," she says. "I kind of knew that. I knew I wanted to do what they were doing." Now 30, Gonzales is a semester away from earning a degree in mechanical engineering from the College of Engineering at the University of Texas-San Antonio (UTSA).

Given her smarts and pluck, it is likely Gonzales would have succeeded no matter where she lived. Nevertheless, as a Hispanic woman seeking a degree in engineering, she was fortunate to have UTSA on her doorstep. UTSA's college of engineering makes it a priority to seek out and graduate minority students. That's a daunting goal but one the college has met. And the result is a nurturing environment for minorities who are budding engineers.

Overall, America's engineering and technology schools struggle to recruit and graduate minority students. That's not necessarily for lack of trying. Low income minority students can present a special set of challenges. Despite having a lot of raw talent, they're regularly shortchanged when it comes to learning math and science—a key requirement for engineering students—by schools that are financially strapped. And those who do make it to universities are often forced to drop out because of economic pressures and the need to begin earning an income early in life.

Those hurdles make UTSA's record all the more impressive. In the 2002-03 academic year, the college conferred 160 bachelor's degrees in engineering and nearly half of them, 76, went to minority students. Fifty-eight of those degrees, or 36 percent of the overall total, were awarded to Hispanic students. "Not all schools can make that claim," explains Paul Carter, the college's former development director. Nationally, 31.7 percent of engineering degrees went to minorities, but nearly half of those went to Asian students. Hispanic students nationally garnered only 5.4 percent of the degrees awarded. Meanwhile, the number of Hispanics graduating in engineering from UTSA should increase since they now make up about half the current crop in the department.

Roughly 50 percent of the population of metropolitan San Antonio is Hispanic, and UTSA believes its student body should reflect the ethnic composition of the area. He notes that the population in and around College Station, Texas, home of Texas A&M University, is very diverse but its student body doesn't mirror that mix. About 18 percent of Texas A&M's engineering graduates are minority, and only 8 percent are Hispanic.

A guiding principle at UTSA is that like attracts like. "One of the things that attracts minority students is the college's diversity," Carter says. "We attract a lot of students who appreciate the fact that it's a very diverse student population." Hispanic students interviewed for this story wholeheartedly agree. Having so many other Hispanic students in the college was "a comfort factor," says John Trevino, 23, who graduated in electrical engineering in December. "That was a big part of why I liked it there." Moreover, as Dean Zorica Pantic-Tanner quickly points out, the college and its minority recruitment efforts also benefit from its burgeoning reputation for excellence. Its student body numbers 1,800—that's an increase of 75 percent from 2000 to 2004. "We are growing very fast and becoming a first choice for students," she says. Pantic-Tanner is also stepping up efforts to attract more young women to the college. Currently, only 13 percent of its graduates are women, which is less than the national average of 20.4 percent.


High school Help

Jeanette De Leon, 22, a mechanical engineering senior, recalls being in—and very much enjoying—a pre-freshman engineering program run by UTSA. - Photographs By Wyatt McSpaddenEarly outreach to local middle and high schools and community colleges is essential to UTSA's success in attracting minorities. Area schools help the college identify potential students, and those who are interested in engineering are given advice as to what courses they should be taking in preparation for enrollment at UTSA. Jeanette De Leon, 22, a mechanical engineering senior, recalls being in—and very much enjoying—a pre-freshman engineering program run by UTSA. The college also has its students talk to high schoolers. "They probably talk to each other better because they're closer in age and outlook," Pantic-Tanner says.

One San Antonio high school, the Engineering & Technology Academy at Roosevelt High School, Northeast—a magnet school that stresses science and math—is always of keen interest to the university. Those, of course, are two subjects that many high schools around the country struggle to teach well. So UTSA holds workshops for area high school math and science teachers to improve their teaching skills. And, Pantic-Tanner says, the college is developing a proposal to send graduate students into area high schools to teach classes.

All colleges of engineering tend to attract students who enjoy and excel in science and math. UTSA is no exception. The students Prism talked to all say those subjects were their favorites while they were growing up. De Leon first enrolled at UTSA as a language and art major. Ultimately, however, she didn't find that course of study challenging enough. She missed math and science, so she switched to mechanical engineering and immediately felt at home. "I needed time to realize where I best fit in," De Leon explains.

Pantic-Tanner says minority students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be highly committed, too. "They're motivated to do well in college and get a degree." Many also think it's important to learn skills that can benefit the wider community. Certainly that's high on De Leon's agenda: "I want to give something back to a society that's given me so many advantages." And, to be sure, because of their often constrained economic circumstances, money is important. "They want to do something that's exciting and well-The lure of a very good paycheck in the future as opposed to an adequate one now paid," Pantic-Tanner says. The lure of a very good paycheck in the future as opposed to an adequate one now "is part of the appeal," admits Trevino, whose parents had urged him to forget about going to university and get a full-time job.

Historically, the most popular engineering discipline at UTSA has been electrical engineering, and that's still the case. But mechanical engineering has been playing catch up in the popularity sweepstakes. Last fall, the college had 40 electrical engineering students enrolled and 36 mechanical engineering students. Carter says that all engineering students tend to be innovators, habitual tinkerers, the kind of people who as kids would take things apart and put them back together. "The creativity of an engineer's mind is something they bring to the school," Carter says.

Efforts to help area schools improve the teaching of math and science not withstanding, many minority students do require a fair amount of remedial help, particularly in math. Early on, freshmen are quizzed by the college to determine their strengths and weaknesses. Carter says the remedial classes are quite successful: Overall at the university, about 8,000 students receive supplemental education, and the retention rate is 74 percent. And not only does the college make use of faculty advisers; it runs an advice center where students are placed in cohorts with students from similar backgrounds. First-year lecture classes are supplemented by smaller recitation groups to ensure that freshmen remain on track academically.


Engineering, Early On

"The usual problem for engineering students," Pantic-Tanner says, "is that in the first two years there are a lot of science classes. We want to make sure they don't lose sight of the bigger picture, and prevent them from getting discouraged, which can happen when they can't see the engineering applications of science." The college works closely with the chemistry, math, and physics departments to ensure that teachers in those subjects give engineering students plenty of in-class engineering examples of the principles being taught.

The college also regularly brings in alumni minority students to make classroom presentations. And the dean is eager to bring in more minority faculty members, too. "We are slowly changing the face of our faculty." Right now, minorities make up about 20 to 25 percent of the college's faculty. That's impressive compared with many schools around the United States, but UTSA's goal is for minorities to comprise half the faculty, again so that it mirrors the surrounding community. And as one of several students who are also mothers, Gonzales says the college is very good about letting them work around childcare time constraints. Outside the classroom, the student branches of the professional engineering societies are active in bringing in speakers, scheduling workshops, and offering skills assessments and job-placement advice.

UTSA's minority students often need monetary as well as academic help. "Financial aid plays a very big role here," Pantic-Tanner says. "The majority [of students] has some kind of financial support." Not only does the college offer scholarships; it runs special workshops to show students what aid is available and how to apply for it. Pantic-Tanner says that the college has been aggressive about helping students find economic assistance. Typically, however, much of the available money comes in the form of loans, not scholarships, and that means debt. That's another reason why well-paying jobs are important. Trevino has $16,000 in student loans to repay, so he was thankful to start work in January with General Dynamics in Scottsdale, Ariz. Ultimately, however, he wants to go to graduate school and is using Project 1,000, a program based at Arizona State University that allows minority students to apply free of charge to as many as seven participating graduate schools.

The world of engineering remains dominated by middle-class white guys, and minorities remain underrepresented in the workplace. While that may change in time because of the efforts of schools like UTSA, it's likely to be a slow process. Meanwhile, many minority students are prepared for that reality mainly because of previous work experiences, including internships. "I've already been exposed to that," says Gonzales, who would like to own her own business some day. "At first it was like, Whoa, I'm in a roomful of men. At first it was a culture shock." Trevino says that at his internships "the only other Hispanic people I saw were those who were throwing out the trash." But if a lack of diversity in engineering is a fact of life for the time being, it's not something that fazes the students. Gonzales stresses she neither wants nor expects special treatment. She's looking for "mutual respect"—nothing more, nothing less. And Trevino sees it as more of a challenge to prove himself and a chance to counter some racial stereotypes.

The students speak readily of their love of the University of Texas-San Antonio and express a desire to be helpful as alumni. De Leon says she feels it's her "duty to come back and do something for [the school]" once she graduates. Both Gonzales and De Leon hope to act as mentors to young minority students. "I want to tell them they can do it," Gonzales says. De Leon agrees. She wants to tell teenagers "that the only thing that is stopping them is their fears."

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in London.

 

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SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon
SPECIAL DOUBLE ISSUE: 2005 ASEE Annual Conference - June 12-15 - Portland, Oregon

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