TEES, Texas A&M Engineering aim to increase retention rates with NSF funding
COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Texas A&M University and the Texas Engineering Experiment Station (TEES) have been awarded almost $2 million to date from the National Science Foundation to increase retention rates among first-year engineering, science and math majors. The five-year Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) aims to increase the number of graduates with science, engineering and mathematics degrees by a minimum of 10 percent through an emphasis on retention of first-year students. TEES assisted the university in developing the grant proposal and will be the fiscal agent for this project. TEES is the engineering research agency of the State of Texas and a member of The Texas A&M University System. The STEP program in the Dwight Look College of Engineering at Texas A&M helps students understand what engineering is and whether they want to continue their engineering studies after their first year. The program enables students to experience hands-on learning on the first day of class through new curricula in freshmen courses. The college redesigned Foundations of Engineering I, the freshman introductory course to the engineering profession, to incorporate development of skills in teamwork, problem solving and design through hands-on learning. The college places freshmen in the course by their major, and departments design the projects to complement student interests. One class, for example, begins building bridges on the first day. Students use magnetic balls and joints to build the bridges. The focus of the course, however, is to give students the skills necessary to complete the project mathematically and successfully build a strong, reliable bridge on the first try. By moving away from popsicle sticks and trial and error, students get a glimpse into what being an engineer is really like. STEP focuses on a three-pronged approach, which encompasses the collaboration between engineering, math and physics. The STEP program enables collaboration by improving communication between the departments, said Dr. Arun Srinivasa, director of the Texas A&M STEP program and an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. "In the past, teachers in each department would use different words for essentially the same thing, and through our communication, we have worked to standardize terms so that students can see the connection across their curriculum," Srinivasa said. "It's not three different classes, it's three aspects." The integrated program enables engineering students to gain an understanding of why different courses are essential to their growth as engineers. "Students believed that freshman courses in physics and calculus were weed-out courses when in reality, understanding of these subjects is an essential foundation for their education," Srinivasa said. STEP has helped the college to increase retention of students through the first-year of study. However, many other changes have occurred to facilitate this increase, including Engineering Living Learning Communities, the Regent Scholars Program, changes in admissions policies, increased help available for students, demographics and the current job market — all of which influence student retention. "The main challenge we face with our program is the sheer numbers of students we are trying to reach," Srinivasa said. "It's easy to come up with a concept, but implementing it across the board to so many students has been a challenge. "STEP focuses on this implementation to the large common group, not to the exception. We are trying to retain students in the program that in the past we would have lost."