ASEE PRISM - September 2000
Teaching Toolbox
On Campus
A Kinder, Gentler Freshman Year

By Linda L. Creighton

Maybe you remember freshman year at college as a nightmare: Huge lectures, remote professors racing through overwhelming material, hours studying physics, calculus, and chemistry that seemed irrelevant to engineering, and a panicky feeling of isolation.

You might have very different memories if you had enrolled in a program like the one at the University of Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. In only its second year, the Student Excellence Initiatives effort has created a support system that has changed the experience and boosted the retention rate of incoming freshmen.

Photograph by  David Howe

Fun and Games: Building kites that fly indoors is just one of the activities designed to ease the transition from high school to college.

Ninety percent of students who participated in the initiative returned to SEAS for their sophomore year, compared with only 63 percent who returned without benefit of the program. Most of the students reported the program boosted their grades, as well. "We want students to realize that engineering school is not there to fail them but to teach them," says associate dean Michael Ryan, who put the program into place.

The program's director--and its heart--is Bill Wild, who earned dual degrees in engineering and English at the University of Buffalo 22 years ago. On a fast-track career at the Rand Corporation, Wild left to teach science to Los Angeles teenage gang members. When the University of Buffalo approached him with the idea for Student Excellence Initiatives, Wild seized the chance to apply his experience from Los Angeles in a university setting. "Engineering students by definition are an at-risk population because of the difficulty of the curriculum,'' Wild says, citing the national dropout rate of 50 percent before junior year. "I knew there was more we could do to keep the challenges but reduce the pain level."

To establish a sense of community for freshmen and sophomores, Wild and Ryan developed an approach based on personal attention. Opening Day is now a team-oriented event with challenges that are fun like like building indoor-flying kites.

"We try to initiate relationships and strike a chord that will reverberate as the semester goes on,'' Wild says.

Students can volunteer for weekly small group meetings with faculty members in physics, chemistry, and calculus to improve their study skills and identify personal areas of weakness. Combined with a newly strengthened faculty mentoring program, this has translated into a support system to meet the individual needs of first-year students making the transition from high school to a demanding and often unforgiving curriculum.

"For the past 18 years these students have done well or they wouldn't be pursuing engineering degrees,'' Wild says. "Until now they've never seen anything like a 60 before except on a speedometer."

The standard engineering introductory course has been revamped to become "Case Studies in Engineering," requiring teams of four or five students to examine real-life problems, such as the Kansas City hotel skywalk collapse of 1981 that killed 114 people. "We give them a chance to understand what engineering is about while they're taking all this calculus," says Wild. "It's a reason to hang in there."

Tightening entrance requirements has had an effect as well. Admissions decisions now include scores on New York state Regents exams in math, chemistry, and physics, screening out an additional 8 percent of engineering applicants. "Yes, we could take students and their tuition but that 8 percent would almost certainly be in academic difficulty immediately," says Ryan.

Mark Karwan, dean of SEAS, says the school can more than offset the annual cost of $110,000 for the innovative program by retaining just 30 students who might have dropped out of the freshman class of 450 engineering students.

With overwhelmingly positive feedback from students, the effort is being expanded to the sophomore level for the first time. But Wild says that's as far as the program will go. "I don't want it to become a crutch," Wild says. "We're training them to do this themselves. Then it's time to swim."

Linda Creighton is a freelance writer in Arlington, Va.

On Campus
Budding Engineers Help the Homeless

The next time a television camera pans across the depressing brown terrain of a natural disaster or war-torn zone, look for pink. As in "Pink Haven," a new type of emergency shelter designed by a group of high-school students from Simsbury, Connecticut. Their prototype won first prize this year in a national competition asking students to solve a societal problem through a novel engineering design, construction, and marketing. The Simsbury team hopes to one day see its pink temporary buildings used to house the millions around the world left homeless each year by floods, earthquakes, and other disasters.

Gimme Shelter:   Simsbury, Connecticut, students demonstrate their design of a new temporary shelter that would house homeless people.

In an annual design contest sponsored by the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS), Inc.--an educational organization that promotes interest in high-school engineering, science, and math--the assignment was to build emergency housing that is portable and affordable, easily constructed, and weather resistant.

Starting in September, about 100 schools assembled teams and sent them scrambling to brainstorm, build models, sew, glue, and rivet to come up with a unique and practical product. Past competitions have challenged students to come up with safer shopping carts, a device to assist the elderly in getting up from a chair, and page turners for disabled readers. At least one year's winning design is in the process of being patented.

"When you ask students what they learned from the competition, they often say 'I'm learning to work with other people and solve problems.' That is what engineering is about, and we're trying to make that connection," says JETS executive director Mike Peralta.

At Simsbury High, a group of students in grades 9 through 12 jumped into the competition enthusiastically with 30-year-old Bob Avery, a science teacher at the school. "The hardest part was the brainstorming," says Avery. "You have 20 kids, 19 ideas, and everybody loves their own idea best."

With a deadline of January to beat, the group met after school and surfed the Internet, visited the library, and cruised the aisles of home improvement stores for ideas. A toothpick model and the beginnings of a prototype took shape in the basement of junior Mike Beilstein. "They were eating us out of house and home," says Beilstein.

In an attempt to get away from conventional tent designs, they came up with a geodesic dome--15 triangles of aluminum rods connected by brass hinges. When the rods drooped like "wet spaghetti," the team found aluminum screen-door jambs at Home Depot and cut them to fit.

Beilstein's mother, a quilter, had sewing machines set up on the kitchen table and the students took turns feeding yards of pink nylon, the only color they could find in the right weight, through the needles. Just a week away from the deadline, Mike checked on the assembled unit one morning and was devastated to see it had collapsed completely, its riveted brass hinges popped open from repeated foldings and unfoldings.

Beilstein's mom happened to bring home flexible silicon tubing from the plumbing store, and one of the team absentmindedly sleeved an aluminum rod into the tube. Voila, instant connectors for the triangles, and a shelter for six, withstanding more than 700 lbs. of weight, impervious to the elements.

Realizing that their product now had to be sold to the judges, junior Nick Fahey pushed hard for a music-based presentation. As slides of world disasters flashed on a projection screen, Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata set the tone for a winning entry. Why pink, they were asked. In a marketing stroke of genius, the team pointed out the increased visibility for searching helicopters and the possibility of brightening the surroundings of those in need. For their efforts, the Simsbury group won, in addition to plaudits, a May outing to Disneyworld.

The challenge for this year's competition is broader than last year's--design and fabricate a product that will help make life easier for a person whose body does not function properly. "Imagination to prototype," says Peralta. The thing that engineers do best.

Linda Creighton is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va.

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