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Under Construction: Building the Engineering Pipeline

Under Construction: Building the Engineering Pipeline

The boot camp mentality in engineering programs has lessened over
the years as many schools struggle to retain their minority students 

By Ronald Roach

Not since the days of the Sputnik I rocket launch by the former Soviet Union have U.S. policymakers worried so much and so openly about America’s competitiveness on the world stage. The United States feared falling behind in the race for military supremacy and space exploration after Sputnik achieved orbit in 1957. These days, policymakers fret that the country could lose its claim as the world’s most competitive and productive economy. That prospect has even President Bush touting new national initiatives.

“Much of our job growth will be found in high-skilled fields like health care and biotechnology. So we must respond by helping more Americans gain the skills to find good jobs in our new economy,” he told the U.S. Congress and the nation in his State of the Union address in early February.

Many major corporations and national organizations have been pointing to the need for improved K-12 and collegiate opportunities for minorities since the early 1970s. They argued that such an infrastructure would be necessary to provide Blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and others with the background to enter the science and engineering work force in meaningful numbers. Yet despite decades of such advocacy, the facts on the ground remain daunting.

“Of the 659,000 minority high school graduates in 2003, only 26,000 had the requisite preparation in science and mathematics to qualify for admission to study engineering or technology at the college level,” says Dr. John Brooks Slaughter, the president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) at the group’s national conference in Northern Virginia last November.

Getting minority students into college isn’t the only problem NACME and other organizations are facing. Getting those students out with degrees has also proven to be a persistent dilemma. The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology reported that in 2003 the engineering graduation rate was 39 percent for underrepresented minorities, while non-underrepresented students (Whites and Asian Americans) had a 62 percent graduation rate. In 1999, Black, Hispanic and American Indian students made up 15.9 percent of freshman engineering students in the United States. But they only made up 10 percent of the undergraduates who were awarded bachelor’s degrees in engineering in 2004.

Corporate America and the nation’s science and engineering organizations have led the way in helping colleges and universities develop support programs for their underrepresented minority students. The effort to create “MEPs,” or minority engineering programs, dates back to the 1970s. The initiatives have led to dramatic results in some institutions but failed to spark lasting change in others. Nonetheless, diversity advocates in engineering and technology say there is plenty of evidence that MEP “best practices” can and do raise undergraduate retention and graduation rates.

Surviving the Boot Camp
In recent months, politicians and pundits have increasingly stressed America’s waning competitiveness in the science and engineering fields. But lost amid the media frenzy and policy initiatives is the reality that many well-educated prospective engineers are emerging from the ranks of underdeveloped talent in the Black, Hispanic and American Indian populations.

The National Science Foundation, multiple federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, corporations and of course colleges, universities and school districts have spent the past three decades working to bring underrepresented minorities into the U.S. science and engineering work force.

Engineering education professionals say one of the challenges in building the profession has been trying to change the long-held “boot camp” ethos traditionally associated with engineering faculty members. The hard-line approach is often cited as the cause for high attrition rates among engineering students.

Dr. David Hayhurst, the dean of the engineering college at San Diego State University, says faculty members began using entry-level calculus, physics and chemistry classes as “weed-out” courses as early as 40 years ago. He contends that student retention was not a high priority for many schools at the time.

Hayhurst recalls his own days as an engineering student in the 1960s, saying the boot camp approach drove scores of students out of the program. But he thinks today’s universities are more concerned with retention than they were when he was going through the process.
Dr. Gary May, the chair of the electrical and computer engineering school at his alma mater, the Georgia Institute of Technology, says the boot camp environment was also predominant there when he was an undergraduate.

“When I was an undergraduate here in the early 1980s, it was more of a boot camp, sink-or-swim mentality. The thinking was, you do this the same way the military does it. You bring a bunch of people in and you put them through some difficult times and the ones that come out the other side are ready,” says May.

Dr. Janet Rutledge, the associate dean of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County graduate school, says engineering faculty traditionally have had little incentive to critique their own teaching styles. Though she thinks the boot camp mentality has diminished somewhat, she says professors aren’t rewarded simply for being excellent in the classroom.
“To be [considered] an adequate teacher you have to be an outstanding researcher,” she says. “Faculty, even if they are interested, often aren’t able to take the time to focus on what is effective delivery of education.”

Hayhurst says the boot camp approach began to shift in the 1980s, at the same time engineering schools took pains to boost their retention efforts and programs. Before then, minority students struggled through an academic process that often combined engineering’s sink-or-swim ethos with overt racial hostility. But despite the obstacles, minority freshman engineering enrollment grew steadily during the
1970s, climbing nationally from 2,249 in 1973 to 11,116 in 1981. Underrepresented minorities were 15,698 of 102,721 — or 15.2 percent — of all engineering freshmen in Fall 2004, according to a 2005 NACME study by Dr. Raymond Landis.

But even now, minority groups still find themselves fighting for equal access to engineering opportunities. Recently, a group of African-American students in engineering and other disciplines accused the University of Michigan and its faculty members of discrimination, saying they failed to provide enough academic and financial support for the students to graduate. The case serves as a reminder that minority students still feel as though they have to negotiate their way through engineering programs that are often hostile to their presence.

Thirteen students, both undergraduates and doctoral candidates, banded together as the Coalition for Action Against Racism and Discrimination (CAARD) and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in January. In their complaint, the Black graduate students contend that Michigan faculty members habitually discourage them from pursuing Ph.D.s and pressure them to leave the program after completing master’s requirements. The undergraduates in CAARD charge they were misled and marginalized by the school.

Emerging Paradigms

The history of NACME, which was founded in 1974, parallels that of the MEPs. Like the collegiate programs, the New York-based organization was established to increase minority recruitment and retention by channeling corporate funding towards engineering schools and scholarships. Over the years, NACME expanded its mission, developing and refining community-based pre-college programs to expand the number of college-ready minority high school students. Its research and policy division, launched in the 1980s, has served as a leading archive and resource center for government agencies, corporations and other organizations working on engineering diversity programs.

“One of the factors that’s indicative of institutions where minority engineering students do well is the strong support of diversity initiatives by the school president and the deans,” says Aileen Walter, NACME vice president for scholarship management.

The 1980s also saw a dramatic shift in strategy by NACME. The organization had previously focused on improving minority enrollments through broad incentive grants. But under the new strategy, NACME began working more closely with the strongest MEPs and the institutions that had made minority student retention a serious priority. As a result, fewer colleges and universities received NACME grants, but scholarship awards for individual students increased.

Out of that 1980s strategy shift emerged the NACME partner institution program. Launched in 2002, the innovative program provides $100,000 block grants to its 44 partner schools. The goal is to “build the participating institutions’ capacity to improve their minority enrollment and degree-completion rates.” NACME scholarships currently support 994 undergraduates, and organization officials expect that number to grow to about 1,600 by the 2007-2008 academic year. NACME students have an 80 percent graduation rate.

The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, a national program funded by the National Science Foundation, has worked to foster regional cooperation and collaboration by MEPs since the early 1990s. The program features regional centers across the country, including the All Nations LSAMP, which consists entirely of tribal colleges and universities. There is also an LSAMP center in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Nine schools make up the Greater Philadelphia Region of LSAMP: Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, the Community College of Philadelphia, Delaware State University, Drexel University, Lincoln University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, Temple University, the University of Delaware and the University of Pennsylvania. Stephen R. Cox is the director of the program, based at Drexel. He says the coalition benefits minority undergraduates by leveraging the strength of the schools’ respective MEPs.

“The Philadelphia LSAMP is one of 32 alliances now funded by the National Science Foundation and collectively we are graduating roughly between 24,000 and 25,000 minority scientists and engineers annually,” he says.

More Innovation
Diversity advocates in science and engineering say programs that get colleges and universities involved with K-12 math and science education help reinforce the message that diversity is important. S. Gordon Moore Jr., the director of the Office of Minority Educational Development at Georgia Tech, says the crisis in public education is of such magnitude that even in the absence of external incentives, such as grants, individual colleges and universities should be active in their local communities.

“Any responsible college or university is paying attention to the K-12 piece,” he says. “That means they’re out trying to help the local school system.” Moore’s department at Georgia Tech gets its students volunteering in the community, tutoring and mentoring low-
income children from Atlanta’s public schools.

The National Science Foundation is making new moves as well,

allocating funding for college science and engineering programs to establish training programs for K-12 teachers. Dr. Mun Young Choi, the associate dean for research and graduate studies at Drexel’s college of engineering, says faculty members have participated in Drexel-organized summer institutes for the past three years, reaching about 60 local teachers annually. He says such involvement in a heavily-minority region reinforces faculty understanding of the commitment a school such as Drexel has made to diversity initiatives.

“We recognize that, because of our environment, we can play a role in shaping the pipeline that brings students to us,” says Choi.

The growing diversity in the nation has led to some level of optimism that programs like the MEPs can be successful in bringing more minorities into the engineering and technology sector, despite some high-profile legal challenges. The current commitment to diversity programs comes in the face of stepped up conservative attacks on those programs. The 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger cases preserved race-conscious admissions, yet prompted many schools to open up their outreach programs to students of all races. Laurence Howell, the executive director of the Educational Opportunity Program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, says just getting the students on campus is a good start. NJIT, located in mostly minority Newark, N.J., has 1,400 Black, Hispanic and American Indian students out of a total student population of 8,000.

“The biggest thing institutions can do to create a more favorable climate for minority success is establishing a critical mass of minority students. Students feel good about that and they make it,” he says.

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