Engineering Diversity Office gets $1.7M grant for student retention programs

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded the Office of Engineering Diversity in Penn State's College of Engineering a five-year, $1.7 million grant for programs designed to increase the retention rate of racially underrepresented and first-generation engineering students at four Penn State campuses.

Amy Freeman, assistant dean of engineering diversity at University Park, said, "This grant allows us to implement new collaborative programming which will increase the number and diversity of graduating engineers at Penn State."

The project, titled "Sustainable Bridges from Campus to Campus: Retention Models for Transitioning Underrepresented Engineering Students," will begin in January 2016.

The proposed research seeks to: increase retention rates among racially underrepresented engineering students by extending a successful summer bridge model and transition program to the Penn State Abington, Altoona, Berks and University Park campuses; develop long-term sustainability plans for these programs; and compare the efficacy of three different summer bridge models.

According to Freeman, the three-year retention rate is a large determinant of graduation in engineering, especially with the challenging entrance-to-major process in the students' second year of studies.

She noted, "The three-year retention rate is 44 percent for all engineering students at the non-University Park campuses but it is 61 percent at University Park. These summer bridge programs are designed to increase those retention rates."

This NSF grant is especially important, she said, since more than half of Penn State's racially underrepresented and first-generation engineering students start their studies at one of 15 commonwealth campuses.

Past summer bridge programs at Penn State have been very effective, noted Freeman. "In 2013, we completed a five-year NSF-funded project that supported summer bridges at other Penn State campuses which were very successful. Data showed that students completing summer bridges were almost twice as likely to stay in engineering as those who did not complete a bridge program."

She added that a high percentage of summer bridge alumni have gone on to serve as leaders in their professions.

The four campuses were selected for the current study because they have the largest populations of the targeted audience.

Although the new summer bridge programs will vary by location, they will all have at least one thing in common: a heavy emphasis on math. Freeman explained, "Math preparation is a key component to success for STEM majors. For a variety of reasons, incoming engineering students are often not ready for the math that is required to graduate with an engineering degree. However, students in the summer bridge programs establish peer teams and are better prepared to enter the fall semester with a realistic view of the work required in college."

Other elements of the new summer bridge programs include: hands-on or observed application of engineering concepts such as project building, site visits to technical firms and research projects; access to faculty, advisory and financial support; and follow-up support, including mentoring and retention programming through the students' first year.

The co-principal investigators on the project include: Ann Schmiedekamp, professor of physics, Penn State Abington; Peter Shull, associate professor of engineering, Penn State Altoona; Pradip Bandyopadhyay, division head of science and professor of physics, Penn State Berks; and Freeman at Penn State University Park.

"We hope to bring this successful retention tool to more Penn State campuses in the future and increase the number of students graduating in engineering and other STEM fields. This recent NSF grant is a positive first step," said Freeman.

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Last Updated September 01, 2015