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Live, Learn, and Thrive - Engineering-themed dorms boost first-year retention and engagement. + By Jane J. Lee + Photograph By Nicola Nittoli and Yajaira Lockhart

With a Dr. Seuss ode painted on the wall, the smell of pizza in the air, and freshmen sprawled across couches or hunched over laptops, the fifth-floor lounge of Easton Hall at the University of Maryland, College Park, could be any campus dorm on a busy school night. But looks can be deceiving. The students on this floor and the one above it live in a special community, where residents have homework parties in the hallway, cheer each other on during classroom presentations, and huddle together for movie nights. They also bond like soldiers in a foxhole because of a singular shared experience: All are female first- and second-year engineering students, slogging through the same tough course load.

First-year electrical engineering student Lauren Berman learned the value of having a support network of classmates, resident mentors, and professional skill-building classes after failing a recent project. “I remember being extremely shocked because [flunking] would never happen to me,” she says. With the help of her freshman seminar instructor, who acts as a guide to academic support resources, Berman managed to work things out with her professor.

Formed in 2007 as a way to retain women engineers in the male-dominated discipline, Maryland’s Flexus program is just one example of how engineering schools across the country are creating villages that emphasize informal interactions with faculty, peer mentoring, and shared learning experiences. And experiences like Berman’s are repeated elsewhere. Kayla Huddleston, a second-year computer science student at Mississippi State University, for instance, says if it weren’t for the Bagley College of Engineering’s women-only residential program, “I think I would have changed my major to math.”

Known as living and learning communities (LLCs), these themed residential programs make a big community feel small, explains S. Patrick Walton, director of the College of Engineering’s LLC at Michigan State University in East Lansing. And it is the sense of belonging they tend to inspire that engineering schools hope will boost degree completion among women and underrepresented minorities, who have languished for years at 20 percent and 3 to 4 percent, respectively, of engineering graduates.

Sharing classes, struggling over the same problem sets, and having resident upperclassmen as mentors encourage freshmen to forge engineering identities along with friendships. The personalized support is particularly important for first-generation students and underrepresented groups struggling to adjust to that first lonely year in college, Walton says. Indeed, breaking big research universities into smaller communities of learners was among the top recommendations of the 1998 Boyer Commission report on improving undergraduate education.


All Together Now

LLCs are the latest twist in a centuries-old tradition of residential colleges. Islamic in origin, the model first took hold in the Western world in the 12th century at the universities of Paris and Oxford. America’s first higher-education learning community dates back to the 1920s, when the University of Wisconsin introduced a short-lived “experimental college” program. The concept re-emerged in the 1960s as a way to “humanize the learning environment,” according to a 2004 study, “Adding Value: Learning Communities and Student Engagement,” and again in the 1980s in response to complaints that undergraduate classes were too big, teaching strategies were too staid, and students were getting lost in the shuffle.

In the mid-1990s, LLCs began to address the low numbers of females and underrepresented minorities in science and engineering. Texas A & M, one of the pioneers, established an engineering living and learning community for women in 1992, and another for underrepresented minorities in 2001. These programs had such “a positive influence on student success and retention,” university officials say, that in 2006 the college established an engineering LLC for 600 first-year students, including a women-only floor that houses 120 freshmen, and actively promotes it as an option for all first-generation college-goers and low-income students.

Since the mid-2000s, the number of engineering LLCs has grown, particularly for women students, says University of Virginia higher education researcher Karen Inkelas, author of the 2007 National Study of Living-Learning Programs. Ranging in size from 20 women undergraduates to more than 100, these female engineering or STEM LLCs combine residential living—either on the same floor or in a separate dorm—with academic and social programming. The aim: Build a student’s social network to reinforce the academic work. Talking to peers about homework or class projects, interacting with faculty via mentorships, and supportive residence hall environments all correlate with higher retention rates, Inkelas says.


“Apparently, 2 a.m. is the best time to do your homework, according to our engineering students.” – Susan Arnold Christian, assistant director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity at Virginia Tech
Photo by New Dishman


Buddies, Mentors, Role Models

“Apparently, 2 a.m. is the best time to do your homework, according to our engineering students,” says Susan Arnold Christian, assistant director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity (CEED) at Virginia Tech. CEED oversees an all-woman engineering LLC for women dubbed Hypatia—after a female mathematician and philosopher in fourth-century Alexandria, Egypt. Realizing that everyone around them is in the same situation, Christian explains, gives students a level of support they can’t find in a help center elsewhere on campus. The best part about living in the all-female LLC, says third-year civil engineering student Doreen Ng-Sui-Hing, “is having the opportunity to walk down the hall, two doors, three doors down and knock on a fellow Hypatian’s door” to talk about problems in class, eat ice cream, or just hang out.

Such bonds endure. “Kristen [Long] and I, we were two doors down from each other last year and still to this day we sign up for the same sections of classes so that we can study together,” says Flexus resident Catherine “Cara” Hamel. “I’m in her room probably every night studying.” Janice Cunningham, now a biological engineering senior at Mississippi State, entered as a first-generation college student and knew she would need all the help she could get. She found “automatic study buddies” in her coeducational LLC. “I still study with the same groups today.”

Two former students in Iowa State University’s all-female science and engineering LLC still bounce ideas off each other, though they work for different companies, says Lora Leigh Chrystal, on-campus coordinator for the school’s Women in Science and Engineering LLC.

Many programs include resident upperclassmen who have gone through the same courses and problems their fledgling dorm-mates face. Programs also make a point of bringing in working engineers to talk to the students. Maryland’s Flexus program, more formally known as the Dr. Marilyn Berman Pollans Women in Engineering Living & Learning Community, has a required course that includes regular sessions with practicing female engineers. First-year students also must write a short paper outlining their career plans and attend at least two professional society meetings.

For the younger women, this career focus “gives them a sense of where they could go,” says Rachelle Reisberg, director of Northeastern University’s women in engineering program. Recent examples include two women engineering graduates from Northeastern who worked on the Curiosity Mars rover at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s not just about having role models that are academically successful but (ones who) do things that are interesting,” she says.

“Anyone who’s been successful in life has had mentors, whether they were purposefully looking for one or not,” agrees George J. Pierson, president and CEO of the international engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff, who donated the seed money to start a learning community for underrepresented engineering majors at his alma mater, Bucknell University. “If you look at the numbers, while there is a tremendous focus on getting minority students interested and admitted to engineering programs, there isn’t an effort to keep them in the programs,” Pierson told Bucknell’s news service. Launched in 2010, Bucknell’s Engineering Success Alliance provides group study sessions, weekly math labs, peer advisers, and internship opportunities for engineering majors from poorly resourced high schools. The program, which now includes nine sophomores and 13 first-year students, already has helped students like Jasmine Joyner, a first-year biomedical engineering major, overcome self-doubt and remain in engineering. The idea is to help students make the leap from “surviving to thriving,” says Bucknell engineering dean Keith Buffinton.


Promising evidence

While the long-term impact is hard to gauge, early evidence provided to ASEE’s retention survey suggests LLCs improve student success and retention, at least through the first year. At the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, for instance, an in-depth look at the 715 first-year students in the 2010 cohort revealed greater persistence — 86 percent — for students in engineering-oriented residential programs, compared with 78 percent for students in other campus residential programs. They earned higher GPAs as well. The college has two engineering LLCs: an honors program housed in Andrews Hall, and the Quadrangle, which offers supplementary calculus work groups, free drop-in tutoring every weeknight, late breakfasts before key midterms, and academic-support workshops.

Michigan State University initiatives have helped boost five-year graduation rates by about 50 percent, from 33 percent for the 1993-97 cohort to 49 percent a decade later. The school redesigned its first-year engineering program in 2009 into the Cornerstone and Residential Experience (CoRe), which integrates first-year courses, design projects, evening presentations by faculty and industry partners, corporate trips, walk-in academic advising, and peer tutoring. Today, over half the 1,100 incoming engineering students live in the CoRe LLC, with many non-LLC peers participating in the residential activities.


“It’s not just about having role models that are academically successful but (ones who) do things that are interesting.” – Rachelle Reisberg, director of Northeastern University's women in engineering program


Studies indicate that LLCs also increase student engagement and satisfaction. Colorado State University, Pueblo researchers looked at the impact on learning of a first-year LLC, opened in 2009, that included two introductory courses with shared homework and a robotics lab. Participants not only reported increased satisfaction, but their pass rates and retention were higher, too. A 2010 study of the first-year experience in a new coed engineering and computer science LLC by Virginia Tech’s Frank Shushok and Rishi Sriram of Baylor University found that those in themed residential programs were seven times more likely to have met informally with a faculty member, four times more likely to have discussed academic issues with a professor outside of class, and 2.5 times more likely to have participated in a study group to work on a class assignment.

Women who participate in engineering and STEM LLCs are far more likely to persist than are classmates in traditional dorms, available evidence suggests. Of the female engineering majors who entered Iowa State University, Ames as freshmen in 2006, the most recent year for which data are available, 65 percent in the science and engineering LLC graduated with an engineering degree. That compares with just 41 percent of the female engineering graduates who didn’t participate in any type of learning community. Some 80 percent of the women in Virginia Tech’s Hypatia LLC who graduated within five years emerged with an engineering degree, versus 69 percent of non-LLC students. At Michigan Tech, 85 percent of the female undergraduates in the engineering LLC stick with the major after their first year, says Jean Kampe, chair of engineering fundamentals. By contrast, the two-year retention rate in engineering for their non-LLC peers is about 81 percent.

Beyond their impact on retention, LLCs clearly have caught on with students. After Virginia Tech started its residential program and career skill-building course for first-year women in engineering, no one wanted to leave at year’s end. Most of the pioneers remained in engineering, and word spread. Last year, a record 1 in 3 first-year female engineering students applied to be in the Hypatia program.

As a freshman, Callie Zawaski initially wasn’t sure she wanted to surround herself with “nerdy engineers” in an all-women dorm. But a talk by CEED director Bevlee Watford persuaded her “there would be others just like me.” Looking back from the perspective of a fourth-year mechanical engineering student, Zawaski is happy about her decision. “Once you leave home, the people you live with can become your family. I couldn’t have designed a better one myself.”


Jane J. Lee is a science writer based in Washington, D.C.

Photograph at top by Nicola Nittoli and Yajaira Lockhart

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