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Ideas Worth Sharing - A multiuniversity collaboration yields lasting improvements in engineering education. + By Margaret Loftus

Daunting first-year coursework at Boise State University nearly crushed Brooke Garner’s ambition of becoming an engineer. “I questioned why I needed to do as much studying as I was doing,” she recalls. The career began to lose its appeal: “Would I graduate from college and be stuck in a dark, back office somewhere, sending out sheets of numbers and product analysis?” But Garner’s freshman experience wasn’t all grind. She also got to put her creativity to work in BSU’s Ceramic Micro-electromechanical Systems lab, designing and building a transistor out of low-temperature co-fired ceramic and silver paste. “It brought my education to life,” says Garner, who stayed and is now a junior in mechanical engineering.

I’ve never seen $10 million do this much in regard to programs that have benefited students. – Carolyn PlumbEngaging freshmen and sophomores in research – even the many who arrive underprepared in math and science – is among the lasting “silver bullets” of a five-year, $10 million effort to improve engineering education and retention at nine western U.S. schools serving underrepresented or at-risk students. A recent follow-up report on the 2003-2008 William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Engineering Schools of the West Initiative found that many of the reforms ESWI prompted had been maintained – and with impressive results. Granted, it was a hefty sum to begin with, says Carolyn Plumb, chair of the ESWI assessment committee, “but I’ve never seen $10 million do this much in regard to programs that have benefited students.”

Conceived in 2002 by Mary Jaffe, daughter of the Hewletts and director of the foundation, the initiative aimed to graduate more so-called global engineers – those with strong technical skills who are able to work in teams across gender and culture lines – with an emphasis on women and other underrepresented minorities. The effort was directed at universities in the western United States that primarily grant bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

A Stress on Collaboration

After soliciting proposals from 17 schools, ESWI funded nine of them, with caveats. The grants were renewable each year for five years depending on a project’s success. After that, schools were told, the money would dry up. “This was not a foundation that they could keep coming back to. They needed to think from Day 1 how they’d get more money,” recounts ESWI Director Rick Reis, a consulting professor in mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

Next, in an unusual move, Reis asked the schools to work together. “We said we’re prepared to fund all of you, but you’re not going to compete. We want you to revise your proposals to hear about how you’ll collaborate. Tell us who you’d like to work with and how you’ll share things.” That surprised Rand Decker, chair of the civil and environmental engineering department at Northern Arizona University, one of the nine. “In 25 years of grant experience, I’ve always ended up working in a vacuum. This is the only one where they said, ‘Now that we have this pool of awardees, we want you back in a room feeding off each other.’” Reis reserved $1 million to fund meetings of grantees. Access to travel funds was critical, he says, since airfares between rural points in the West can easily reach $1,000.

For open-enrollment BSU, the timing of the grant was fortuitous. Just six years old, the College of Engineering faced two challenges The biggest was underprepared freshmen. At the same time, the college wanted to encourage faculty research but lacked a pool of graduate lab assistants because it had no Ph.D. program. “So by necessity, we had to go with undergrads,” explains mechanical engineering Prof. John Gardner, who served as the school’s principal investigator for ESWI. “They didn’t have the mathematical or engineering sophistication, but many of them had life skills that they brought into the lab. Some of them are better designers and many are better mechanics than most of the faculty.”

From 2004 to 2011, the one-year retention rate among these first- and second-year BSU STEM students, primarily from under-represented or at-risk groups, was 98 percent. Once they were able to prove the effectiveness of the program with help from ESWI, BSU had no trouble securing future funds from other sources, such as the National Science Foundation. “We said, ‘Here’s a great program, and here’s proof,’ ” says Gardner. “That’s gold in today’s environment.”

At Montana State University, the College of Engineering focused its proposal on getting more Native Americans into the engineering pipeline. The ESWI grant created the Designing Our Community program, which seeks to recruit and retain more Native Americans, as well as return the graduates to their communities, traditionally underserved by engineering and technology. The grant funded support on multiple levels, including recruitment visits to the seven reservations throughout the state, the hiring of a DOC director, and Skype-like connections so students could communicate with their families regularly and not feel the need to visit home as often on weekends. But the greatest impact, says Assistant Dean Heidi Sherick, came from a stipend that meant these students didn’t have to find employment. “Instead of putting 10 to 15 hours a week into a job at a fast food restaurant, they could put more time into studying.” The formula worked. The college’s Native American engineering and computer science bachelor’s degree completers rose from three in 2007 to 11 in 2011, making it one of the highest producers of Native American engineering graduates in the country.

Northern Arizona University took an entirely different approach. Instead of focusing on one program, Decker and his co-PIs distributed the funds in mini-grants of $25,000 to $100,000 to faculty, staff, and even students. “We wanted to spread that money so it had an opportunity to be a creative catalyst in a large population, a shallow but broad pond,” Decker says. The Engineering Talent Pipeline (ETP) provided supplemental instruction in gateway sophomore engineering courses – statics, dynamics, mechanics, thermodynamics, fluids – that is credited with a boost in retention and has been institutionalized. Faculty-led outreach efforts, including a summer camp for Native American women that yielded a significant uptick in the enrollment of Navajo women, have since been dropped by the university. Nonetheless, recruitment and retention numbers are strong. Classes that previously had 25 to 30 students now have more than 60, according to the ESWI final report. Just how much of the increase can be attributed to ETP is hard to say, considering NAU’s considerable recruitment efforts in Asia and the Middle East, and the economic downturn. But the report credits the program with better preparing the school to handle the influx of students.

Those involved in ESWI say its overall success stems from the strong foundation of collaboration. With money available to meet at least once a year after the annual ASEE conference, awardees were able to share ideas and build on each other’s expertise. Gardner says MSU, for one, especially benefited from discussions on shaping modules of introductory engineering classes. For example, MSU and NAU have applied robotics activities used by another grantee, the University of Nevada, Reno.

Keep the Ball Bouncing

But it wasn’t just engineering educators who worked together. Reis insisted on assessment and sustainability, requiring faculty to look for help outside engineering and enlist metrics specialists and fundraisers. For instance, NAU has adopted Oregon State University’s freshman retention survey. “It was brilliant,” says Decker of the ESWI approach. “The power of it in terms of what resulted was a heck of a lot more than the sum of nine.”

The other key component was sustainability. As chair of the sustainability committee, Decker was charged with helping the nine schools “keep the ball bouncing after the money from Hewlett ended.” That meant ramping up proposal writing from the very start, which was encouraged by providing a stipend of $3,000 for each successful proposal. “If you were to amortize the hours, they probably were getting paid $3 an hour. It wasn’t the money; it was the sense that what we are doing is important to someone,” says Decker. “It was powerful because it was supported by Hewlett.” As a result, 38 proposals were funded across the nine schools, generating some $12 million.

Assessment Chair Plumb, who is director of educational innovation and strategic projects at MSU’s College of Engineering, says, “I’ve been involved in engineering education for 25 years and involved in externally funded projects from foundations and government agencies, and 60 or 70 percent of the time those projects go away when the funding stops because the institutions can’t sustain them. But in this case, that really didn’t happen. Most programs have been sustained and even grown.”


Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.


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