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Roueche Center Forum: Diversifying the Undergraduate Engineering Education Pathway – An Opportunity for the Community College

Vision 2030, a recently released report from the National Science Board (NSB), is the latest in a plethora of warnings that the American way of life is threatened because we are in danger of falling behind in STEM, the disciplines that have powered American prosperity for decades. The current COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the power and promise of scientists, engineers and health professionals bringing their collective knowledge to bear on this challenge. Yet, the disparity in the representation of minorities, as well as women, is becoming an increasing problem for the STEM disciplines given the demographic changes occurring in society.

Dr. Irving Pressley McPhailDr. Irving Pressley McPhail

The field of engineering is a good case in point. The American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE)’s report, Engineering by the Numbers, shows a slight increase in the percentage of engineering bachelor’s degrees earned by underrepresented minority groups (URMs) in 2018 vs. 2017. Hispanic students earned 11.4% of bachelor’s degrees vs. 11.1% in 2017, continuing a decade long upward trajectory. Black/African American students earned 4.2% of bachelor’s degrees in 2018 vs. 4.1% in 2017, reversing the downward trend experienced from 2008-2016. Native Americans and Hawaiian/Pacific Islanders earned 0.3% and 0.2%, respectively, of bachelor’s degrees. Although the data show increases in minority participation in undergraduate engineering education, that progress has been marginal, neither steady enough nor substantial enough for the representation of minorities to approach parity with their presence in the U.S. population.

Against the backdrop of the national imperative to increase the representation of URMs in engineering education and careers, the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) determined that its university partners and like-minded institutions and organizations could benefit from a more precise knowledge of what best facilitates the successful retention and graduation of URMs in undergraduate engineering education. With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NACME embarked on a three-phase/three-year study to isolate specific success factors. The study findings are presented in the new book, Success Factors for Minorities in Engineering, by Jacqueline Fleming and Irving Pressley McPhail. Principal conclusions reached include the following:

  • In engineering, ability is paramount. In this case, ability was measured by standardized test scores. No matter how one stands on testing, these scores were important to student success in most cases.
  • The ability to manage the academic environment seems to take a close second to ability in achieving success. Such managerial abilities include the meta-analytic organization of information, the protection of concentration, and the assessment of faculty, as well as effort and time management.
  • Minority Engineering Program (MEP) participation occupies a central position in minority student success. It appears to enable good minority student adjustment, better than that observed for non-minority students. The programs may also offer reasonable substitutes for any lack of faculty attention or guidance.
  • Attending an historically Black college or university (HBCU) constitutes a unique pathway to engineering success. There was some evidence that MEP programming in predominantly White institutions (PWIs) offers an alternative to what an HBCU provides for its students, i.e., better academic adjustment.
  • Again and again, the study provides evidence that hands-on exposure to the work of engineering — as in problem- or project-based courses, research participation, and, particularly, industry internships — constitutes the primary success factor.

The present study offers an important opportunity to bridge research, practice and policy across the undergraduate engineering education and community college engineering education transfer sectors. A review of evidence-based interventions to facilitate the pathway from community college to engineering careers suggests the following action agenda:

  • Introduce STEM education and career options at an early age to URM students by providing access to academic support programs, after-school coaching for PSAT/ACT preparation and STEM-integrated curricula to increase the ability of high school graduates to enter a community college prepared for the rigor of pre-engineering study.
  • Provide research-based academic support services, financial support, and trained and competent faculty.
  • Transform instructional practices at the community college to incorporate learning-centered, social constructivist pedagogy in science and mathematics.
  • Introduce contextualized instructional models that infuse the developmental mathematics curriculum with real-world engineering problems and scenarios.
  • Implement exemplary practices in transfer and articulation in engineering education.

It is imperative that we promote knowledge-sharing activities to achieve an engineering workforce that reflects America’s demographic realities. It is also important to understand that diversity drives innovation and that its absence imperils our designs, our products, and, most of all, our creativity — all components of competitiveness.   

Irving Pressley McPhail, Ed.D., is Founder & Chief Strategy Officer at The McPhail Group LLC, a global consulting practice dedicated to transforming communities and contemporary organizations through strategy and innovation; and Professor of Practice at the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership at Kansas State University. He is President & CEO Emeritus at the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), Founding Chancellor Emeritus at The Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), President Emeritus at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley, and President Emeritus at LeMoyne-Owen College.

The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.

This article originally appeared in the July 23, 2020 edition of Diverse. You can find it here.

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