Engineering Schools Map More Ways to Success

When she was five years old, Marleen Martinez sang a solo in her kindergarten class, the words to which she still remembers:

“I may be small, but I’m growing,” went the lyrics. “Watch and one day you’ll see: Space is wide open and waiting for me.”

Like many kids, Martinez had decided that she wanted to become an astronaut. But unlike most, she held to her goal, throughout a childhood in rural central Washington and an education in a high school so small the most advanced math class was junior-year pre-calculus.

By the time she arrived at the College of Engineering at the University of Washington she was already behind—in a discipline whose demands are unforgiving.

“Sometimes we get stereotyped with, ‘Engineers never leave the engineering building,’” Martinez says. “You’re either trying to remember all those theorems and triple integrals or on a computer running simulations, not out on the quad with your friends. But you don’t have a choice. Every credit is accounted for in those four years [of an engineering education].”

So Martinez did something different: She took five years instead.

“I was a quarter behind everyone else,” she says. “But because I had the extra year, I could catch up.”

Taking extra time in engineering programs is an idea that’s spreading in response to poor math preparation in high school, spiraling employer demand for home-grown engineers, and a recognition that surviving the first year is an ordeal that forces many engineering majors to drop out. It’s also touted as a way to increase the number of women, nonwhites, and people from low-income backgrounds in engineering.

“There’s a whole tendency in engineering to look at performance in the first quarter or the first two quarters and draw a line,” says Eve Riskin, associate dean of engineering at the University of Washington. “We are dumping people who have lots of potential because they don’t do well in the first year.”

UW and Washington State University will begin adding an extra year this fall for engineering students who need the time to brush up on their math and other subjects before they dive into the rest of the curriculum. They follow the University of Colorado at Boulder, which pioneered the practice, and several other U.S. universities that are trying other ways to ease the paths of smart but under-prepared students at the outset of their higher educations.

The universities liken this to “redshirting,” the practice under which intercollegiate athletes can get an extra year to work on their skills while remaining eligible for competition.

“It’s the same concept,” says Robert Olsen, associate dean of engineering at Washington State. “They say, ‘You’ve got talent. We’re going to give you a year to bulk up.’ These engineering students are just as bright as everybody else; they just don’t have a good background. They’re starting from behind, and we have to get them caught up.”

The same principle is at work at Cornell, which is adding a summer math institute for incoming freshmen, more tutoring, and other help. At Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, a new system will track students who are struggling, and their classmates and working engineers will be called upon to tutor them across the bumps. Syracuse is working to improve teaching and academic advising.

Students who need help with calculus at the University of Portland will take extra courses in the summer, since trouble with calculus is the most common reason first-year students drop out of engineering programs. The University of Texas at Austin is focusing on mathematical concepts that often trip up students in calculus courses.

All of these initiatives are being underwritten by the National Science Foundation with $10 million from Intel, the GE Foundation, and investment strategist and White House economic advisor Mark Gallogly. They’re part of an initiative called Graduate 10K+, which aims to increase the annual number of graduates in engineering and computer science by that number, and it’s aimed primarily at students who shy away from engineering.

Blacks and Hispanics make up only five and six percent of engineers, respectively, compared to 12 and 16 percent of the U.S. population, according to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. Only 13.4 percent of engineers are women.

“We want more students coming into engineering, and we want more diverse students coming into engineering,” says Tanya Ennis, director of the GoldShirt five-year bachelor’s degree program at the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado, which will produce its first graduate this fall. “We’re being pushed by the private sector to really take this on.”

As for Marleen Martinez, her aeronautical engineering degree has gotten her closer to the cosmos. She may not be an astronaut, but she’s working at Lockheed Martin as a rest engineer on the Orion spacecraft program.

“I’m glad I took that extra year,” she says. “I wasn’t as stressed out as most people. And I could go at my own pace.”

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