Urban Program Helps Boost Minorities, Women in Engineering

Minority engineering students

ST. LOUIS—Eric’El Johnson was great at science and math in high school, so you’d think the move to engineering school would have been smooth for her. But two things stood in the way: stereotypes and money.

“Guys are expected to do well in math and science, and girls aren’t,” says Johnson, who, in addition to being female, is part of two other groups in short supply in engineering: She’s black, and she’s the first person in her family to go to college.

While four in 10 Americans are minorities, only one in 10 engineers are, according to the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering. And women, who account for 51 percent of the population, make up only 14 percent of the engineering workforce. Women who are also minorities? They get fewer than 3 percent of engineering degrees.

A low-profile and unusual program in St. Louis is helping Johnson, and others like her, buck those odds.

Run jointly by the University of Missouri in St. Louis and Washington University, the program accepts high school graduates who may not have had prerequisites such as calculus. It puts them through a “pre-engineering” curriculum at the public university or local community colleges before sending them on to upper-division classes at Washington U.

“There’s huge competition [among engineering schools] for the students who self-identify early on as having talent and ambition,” says Joseph O’Sullivan, dean of the program. “We’re here for students who didn’t self-identify early, who might have not had those opportunities in high school. We say, ‘If you don’t have calculus, okay, take calculus.’”

Students pay the comparatively low public-university tuition of $9,000 a year, and most receive financial aid; since both campuses are in the city—something that is also unique among major engineering schools—many save money by living at home and commuting to classes. And almost all the courses, on both campuses, are taught after 4 p.m., allowing the students to work, hold internships (Johnson’s was at Boeing), or raise families. Half attend part time on their way to bachelor of science degrees in civil, mechanical, or electrical engineering.

“What they don’t understand,” at the University of Missouri flagship campus in Columbia or the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, “is that these are students who can’t move to Rolla,” O’Sullivan says. “They can’t move to Columbia. They just don’t get that.”

About 20 percent of the program’s graduates are black and 13 percent are women—in both cases, four times the national average. Students who are older than the traditional age also benefit from this arrangement. Many are put off by the sink-or-swim culture of conventional engineering schools.

“It’s pretty intimidating,” says John Bushur, a Marine Corps veteran now majoring in electrical engineering. “I had a little bit of catching up to do.”

He says support from faculty, night classes, financial aid, and tutoring if he needs it all help. So does support from fellow students.

“At times, so much is getting thrown at you. There’s that mentality of pushing the other person through,” Bushur says.

The program symbolizes the disconnect that sometimes occurs between conventional engineering schools and the populations they often fail to reach.

The University of Missouri in St. Louis is in a comparatively down-on-its luck neighborhood of pawn shops and check-cashing stores on the wrong side of Delmar Boulevard in a city the Manhattan Institute rates as one of the most segregated in the United States. The St. Louis public schools are among the state’s worst-performing.

More than 40 percent of the students in the engineering program qualify for federal Pell grants, meaning they have annual family incomes of around $30,000 or less.

Working with students like those “is part of the history of this campus,” says Bernard Feldman, the associate dean at UMSL. “We’ve always been an urban school, so that’s what shaped the importance of reaching out to as many students as possible. And the program makes a commitment that if they’re doing well, we’re not going to let money stop them.”

Washington University, by comparison, is a gleaming campus of grassy quadrangles framed by Gothic architecture and magnolia trees, with live orchids on the tables in the student dining halls and facilities bristling with state-of-the-art technology.

The joint program has its own study room at Washington U., with a bottomless supply of coffee. But students spend much of their time at internships, not just at Boeing, but at the motor company Nidec, Emerson Climate Technologies, and others. And many end up with jobs at those places when they graduate.

As for Johnson, she plans to do her part to inspire more women engineers. Her plan is to become a professor of electrical engineering.

“We have to get rid of those stereotypes,” she says, “especially for girls.”

Photo courtesy of University of Missouri in St. Louis

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About Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus is a writer based in Boston and a contributor to newspapers and magazines including the Washington Post, New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, and the Times (U.K.) Higher Education magazine.
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