Texas A&M System, TEES take big STEPs to student retention
COLLEGE STATION, Texas - If you take the time to sit down and speak with a student enrolled in Foundations of Engineering I, the freshman introductory course to engineering, you would get a very different picture of the engineering program at Texas A&M University than five years ago. This phenomenon is occurring in math, science and engineering courses across the state. Through the partnership of the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) and four universities in The Texas A&M University System, changes are being made to increase enrollment and retention in these degree programs. Texas A&M University, West Texas A&M University, Texas A&M University-Kingsville and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, all TEES Regional Divisions, have received Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) grants from the National Science Foundation. "TEES assisted faculty and administrators at each of the four institutions to develop the proposals and grant concepts based on the needs of the individual campuses and their plans to increase enrollment in science, engineering and mathematics, particularly among students who are first generation or underrepresented in these majors," said Dr. K. L. Peddicord, director of TEES. Currently, there are seven STEP programs in Texas, and four are through the TEES/A&M System partnership, resulting in more than $4.5 million in federal funds brought into the A&M System. Texas A&M's STEP program aims to increase the number of college graduates with physics, engineering and mathematics degrees a minimum of 10 percent by enabling students to experience hands-on learning on the first day of class through new curricula in freshmen courses. Dr. Arun Srinivasa, a principal investigator of the Texas A&M STEP program, said, "The STEP program has been an excellent transformation for Texas A&M. In engineering, we now have department heads and distinguished faculty teaching freshman courses. It's an exciting thing." West Texas A&M's STEP program targets recruitment of students not enrolled in science, engineering and mathematics degree programs. The program includes a redesign of core mathematics and science courses, and dissemination of career information in these courses. "Both actions should attract undecided and non-majors who are enrolled in these core courses," said Dr. Pamela Lockwood, a principal investigator of the West Texas A&M STEP program. "[Our program] also targets community college students with periodic visits to their campuses. The Office of Admissions will host a `West Texas A&M Day' at each of our two main feeder institutions -- South Plains College and Amarillo College -- this year." At Texas A&M-Kingsville, emphasis is on recruiting Hispanic students by encouraging their interest in chemistry, physics, engineering and mathematics bachelor's degree programs, The aim is to provide a trained workforce for the state. The program also fosters efficient transfer for students from collaborating two-year institutions such as Palo Alto College, South Texas Community College and Del Mar College. And at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Hispanics in the Coastal Bend region are encouraged to pursue degrees in science, engineering technology and mathematics. "Our goals are to increase the retention and quality of science students by implementing researched-based best practices in teaching, the establishment of a mentoring program, and connecting mathematics, science and English in a relevant and meaningful way," said Dr. Jose Giraldo, the principal investigator of the program at A&M-Corpus Christi. TEES continues to work closely with all four institutions. In Summer 2007, TEES brought all four participating institutions together in Dallas. The meeting provided an opportunity for the principal investigators and senior faculty to get to know each other, to build a working relationship and to share information on the projects' successes and failures. "TEES has been instrumental with enabling information flow between departments as to what is going on and what has been implemented elsewhere. They have helped each project to know that they are not alone in their endeavors and that other programs have similar problems as well," Srinivasa said. Not only has TEES worked to encourage communication between the universities, but also helped each university prepare its grant proposal for NSF. "The TEES Strategic Research Development office was instrumental in the funding of this project," Lockwood said. "Our college had an exceptional group of faculty members with some innovative ideas for retaining students, but our faculty members teach 12 hours each semester and have limited experience in writing federal funding proposals. "The TEES grants office turned our ideas and data collection on our current majors and projections for the future into a competitive proposal." TEES has continued to assist each university with administrative budgetary issues and personnel changes, Giraldo said. "After the proposal was funded TEES has continued to assist us with budget execution. This has been a positive collaboration."