September 21, 2006

Grant aids engineering student retention effort

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Engineering is the recipient of a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation aimed at increasing retention and graduation rates.

The multi-faceted program targets retention of freshmen and sophomores. The plan includes expanding the college's summer bridge program; providing engineering-designated sections of several courses; and developing an Engineering Residential College in Thompson Point residence halls for freshmen and sophomore engineering students.

By specifically targeting retention in the first two years, the college wants the graduation rates of incoming freshman to increase from 37 percent to 67 percent in five years, interim associate dean John W. Nicklow said. From 1997 to 2002, retention rates were 66 percent for freshmen and 69 percent for sophomores. Retention rates for juniors and seniors are higher, he said.

The grant is a large step forward, said Dean William P. Osborne. Improving retention will increase enrollment and make it easier to recruit new students, he said.

"If we implement this right this will make a big difference in the college five years from now," he said.

Osborne emphasized the goals are achievable. Studies show a key ingredient in keeping students in college is peer connections, he said.

"If we give them the right help and surround them with the right peer group to keep them here we can get over that," he said. "I'm really excited about this."

The initiatives start next summer by expanding the college's summer bridge program – available to incoming freshman engineering students – from an average of six to 10 students to between 30 and 40, Nicklow said.

Other initiatives include:

• Helping incoming students develop a support group by providing engineering-designated sections of a speech communications course, an English course, and three calculus courses.

• Asking all freshmen and sophomores to live in one of three designated residence halls on Thompson Point.

The College of Engineering is working with University Housing in developing the plan, Nicklow said. The buildings also have room to teach the engineering-designated courses, he said. Students who could commute to classes will be encouraged to live in the residence halls because of the support group available to them, Nicklow said.

• Peer, faculty and industrial/practicing engineering mentors.

There will be 36 peer mentors from the sophomore class living in the residence halls. In addition, students and peer mentors will work with three to five faculty mentors to help in identifying problems students may be having, Nicklow said. There will also be 36 industrial or practicing engineering mentors to meet with students in seminars and meetings.

• Instituting a college-level three-hour "Introduction to Engineering" course that replaces varied introductory engineering course offerings provided by individual departments.

A key component is utilizing hands-on projects to get engineering students involved, Nicklow said. Clemson University utilized a similar program and significantly raised its freshman retention rates, Nicklow said. Because freshmen will be in the same residence halls, taking the same core classes, and the same introduction to engineering course, they will have a support network and peers to rely upon, he said.

Former associate dean Hasan Sevim submitted the proposal, "Engineering and Technology Talent Expansion Program at SIUC," to the NSF in February. He left the University in August to become dean of the School of Engineering at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Osborne hopes a program prototype can be exported to other engineering schools around the country in three to five years. The elements of this program have each been tried someplace and were successful "to some extent," Osborne said.

"Putting it all together and trying it all at one time is new. That is the part that if we prove it really does work we can export it," he said.

The proposal is "a real milestone for the college," said Nicklow, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "In a sense, I feel the spotlight is on us to make this happen. But the college is excited to see the change and make this happen."

Nicklow is serving as the project's principal investigator. Co-principal investigators are: Lalit Gupta, professor, electrical and computer engineering; James A. Mathias, assistant professor, mechanical engineering and energy processes; Jale Tezcan, assistant professor, civil and environmental engineering; Kathleen Pericak-Spector, professor, mathematics; Ernest L. Lewis, professor, educational psychology and special education; Rhonda K. Kowalchuk, assistant professor, educational psychology and special education; Bruce C. Chrisman, coordinator, College of Engineering; Ronald A. Caffey, director, minority engineering programs; and Christopher A. Pearson, College of Engineering Outreach Programs, researcher I.

Promoting student retention at all levels is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.