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“Stepping-Up” to the Challenge

“Stepping-Up” to the Challenge

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, students pursuing engineering fields can anticipate higher than average job growth. Fields such as civil, environmental, mechanical and biomedical engineering are predicted to grow 15-24 percent before 2020, offering tremendous opportunity for recent graduates.

In contrast to the projected job growth, the interest in engineering as a major has remained steady over the last few decades, and the number of students prepared for the rigorous curriculum of engineering programs has not kept pace. Students arrive at their universities with less than adequate skills in mathematics and physics, leading to high dropout rates from the very gateway courses that could lead them into engineering.

SIUE’s School of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences are working to improve the retention of undergraduates showing interest in engineering by enhancing academic support and mentorship for students. Project STEP-UP, or Student Teams Engaging Peers for Undergraduate Progress, is funded by the National Science Foundation and aims to markedly increase the success and retention of undergraduates who decide to study engineering.

The STEP-UP Program targets common reasons undergraduate students do not advance into engineering programs. The project is led by Dr. Seref “Cem” Karacal, associate dean of engineering and professor of industrial engineering. Co-investigators are Drs. Zenia Agustin and George Pelekanos, professors of mathematics and statistics; Dr. Ryan Fries, associate professor of civil engineering; and Dr. Ryan Krauss, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

When a new undergraduate student selects engineering as a field of study, he or she faces numerous challenges that may lead to a loss of interest in engineering.

Studies show that, across institutions, the most common reasons for failing to pursue engineering include: inadequate preparation at the high school level; financial struggles; difficulty adjusting to college life; no sense of belonging to the engineering community; and a lack of support networks, including mentors.

It is no wonder that undergraduates nationally are dropping out of the engineering major pathway even before completing basic mathematics courses.

Aware of the national trend, faculty members in the School of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences analyzed the performance of engineering students in gateway math courses and found that success rates in these courses were low. Between 2005 and 2012, freshman who began their university careers in pre-calculus classes were retained in engineering major pathways at a mere 40 percent success rate; in calculus I, a 51 percent success rate; and in calculus II, a 68 percent success rate.

Seeking to improve these numbers, they conceived a project that would take a multi-tiered approach to retaining undergraduate engineering majors.

In 2012, the team submitted a proposal to and received funding from the National Science Foundation’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP), a grant program designed specifically to increase the number of students completing degrees in engineering and computer science. The team launched their $830,000, five-year STEP-UP project in 2013, beginning initial intervention strategies and their plan to create a more supportive network for students in the pre-engineering pathway.

Central to the STEP-UP program is the idea that tracking and early intervention for students enrolled in basic mathematics classes would buttress those students who qualify for engineering majors but might be struggling with calculus.

The team has tapped into several existing campus resources, as well as created new avenues to provide student support through enhanced tutelage and guidance from multiple angles. First, the team implemented specialized enrichment sessions following lectures for students in calculus I and calculus II who have already declared an engineering major. These supplemental sessions provide specialized learning opportunities for students in an engineering major, giving them extra problem-solving opportunities.

Staffed by undergraduate student leaders, the enrichment sessions use peer support to create a collaborative and mutually affirming environment. The strategy targets the entire class of students, aiming to raise the overall achievement of the cohort rather than that of individual strugglers.

In addition to enrichment sessions, specialized practice modules and evening math tutors are also available to all engineering freshmen as they work through practice problems on their own. Previously, tutors were only available in limited amounts through the Math Resources Center. STEP-UP now provides access to additional peer tutors, recruited from high-performing upper classmen, to provide individualized coaching five days per week in a residence hall with many engineering student residents. Additionally, peer mentors organize study groups and extracurricular activities aimed to generate a sense of community and comfort within the university environment.

Second, the team worked to develop opportunities for mentorship offered through a network of engineering faculty and working professionals. The School of Engineering recruits faculty members to advise students on questions related to the engineering profession and guide them through their curricular development.

The STEP-UP funding now enhances the mentorship program by regularly connecting engineering freshman with industrial mentors, working professionals who demonstrate concrete examples of how to apply mathematics, physics and engineering concepts in their everyday jobs. Last year, 16 professional engineers from across the region visited SIUE to interact with students.

Co-op and internship opportunities accompany these industrial connections, introducing valuable work experience to upperclassmen before they enter the job market. Most importantly, mentorship models such as these boost student investment in and understanding of the field, while drawing them into a network that offers future pathways for SIUE engineering graduates.

By relying on peer tutors and mentors, Karacal’s team designed a program to provide social support and access for students transitioning to a challenging campus life. These relationships also benefit the student leaders themselves, who may experience increased understanding of material, improved communication skills and confidence. The team’s hope is that enrichment sessions and peer mentoring will reduce students’ math anxiety while improving their proficiency in the subject, thus increasing the success rate in calculus courses.

Though only in the first half of the project, preliminary results show that STEP-UP is having compelling returns on student retention and success in the target courses. Outcomes from the first two years of the math enrichment program suggest that the passing rate in the engineering sections of calculus I has increased about 15 percent and 16 percent more students are getting As and Bs when compared to regular sections of the course.

The impact of the enrichment sessions on calculus II is even stronger with 18 percent more passing the course and about 18 percent more getting As and Bs. Furthermore, the freshman retention rate for those who started in engineering in fall 2013 and fall 2014 were 87.4 percent and 90 percent—well above the historical rate of 76 percent.

Although hard to measure, the impacts of other interventions—social supports and peer mentorship—can be traced in the subtle ways students identify with the engineering community. An opinion poll suggests that most students participating in the mentoring program found the program very helpful. But perhaps more significant is the fact that the freshman cohorts are already participating in engineering design teams, such as the Mini Baja and Solar Car teams, and student organizations, such as the Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Women Engineers.

Other indicators of success can be seen in the projects students produce from their learning experiences. In February 2014, a group of students from the original STEP-UP cohort launched a weather balloon during the Engineering Building Annex ribbon cutting ceremony. Thus, three semesters after enrolling at SIUE, these students demonstrated the advances they had made as blossoming engineers and professionals who will create impactful solutions for the future.

“Our overall objective of the project is to increase the number of engineering graduates,” Karacal said. “As this number improves, so will the economic well-being of our immediate geographic region and the nation.”

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