October 29, 2008

Engineering’s retention effort shows success

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A program aimed at increasing retention among undergraduates and graduation rates within the College of Engineering at Southern Illinois University Carbondale is showing strong success just one year into its five-year lifetime.

John W. Nicklow, associate dean and professor in the college, said retention rates for freshmen rose by 7 percent to 71 percent during the first year of the program, a substantial step toward the program’s overall goal of retaining 80 percent of the freshman class each year.

Retention rates for sophomores rose by 9 percent to 79 percent, also marking a major improvement on the road to the program’s goal of retaining 90 percent of sophomores.

The plan, funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2006, began in fall 2007. The data showing how these new programs work come from fall 2007 and spring 2008, said Nicklow, who is the principal investigator on the project.

The objectives included improving the overall graduation rate in the college to 67 percent, from the existing 38 percent, as well as the freshman and sophomore retention rates of 64 percent and 70 percent, respectively. The junior and senior retention rates traditionally were much higher, Nicklow said, pointing to the need for helping students through those first tough years.

“So after one year, we’re nearly halfway to our goal,” he said. “We know things are working now, we know what is cost-effective so now we figure out how to tweak it and make it even more effective.”

The project takes several approaches and strategies to achieve its goals, Nicklow said, with its residential college acting as a cornerstone. It involves three residence halls in Thompson Point exclusively for engineering students. Engineering students must live there during their first two years at the University.

Peer mentors also play a major role in the program. The college employs about 40 upperclassmen who live in the residential college and work with the freshmen and sophomore students. The mentors work up to 12 hours per week attending class with the students, taking them to social or athletic events, holding study sessions and tutoring.

Nicklow said the residential college and peer mentoring are cost-effective strategies that allow college leaders to maintain close contact with younger students.

“As faculty, we don’t always have contact with those students, but the peer mentors live with those students,” Nicklow said. “Every week they report to us and tell us how they are doing -- if they’re missing class, if they’re having trouble with math or maybe they’re a little depressed. There’s no way without that peer mentor that we can get that close to a student.

“The idea is we want a tight-knit community,” he said. “Engineering is not that big and we want those students to feel they are a part of that community, so whatever they’re going through someone will be there to help. Someone is paying attention.”

The program also includes faculty mentoring and practicing engineer mentoring, Nicklow said, along with engineering-specific sections of core curriculum classes, such as English, taught at residence halls.

The program also includes an Engineering 101 course, which focuses on preparing students for the engineering curriculum, study skills, ethics, supplemental instruction and other aspects.

A survey of students during the first year showed they are reacting positively to the program, with more than 75 percent saying it helped them develop stronger friendships. Others offered comments:

“I looked at other schools but they don’t have engineering set-up like (SIUC),” a student wrote. “It is so tailored to our needs and gives us all the help we can get.”

The program also offers a summer bridge program that at-risk students can take to supplement their skills. Results from that effort showed 86 percent of students who took the summer bridge program ended up placing into a higher level of math, Nicklow said.

SIUC is one of a handful of universities around the country with NSF engineering retention grants. Although many of these institutions are focusing on one or two approaches to the problem, Nicklow said SIUC chose to take a multi-faceted approach.

“My gut feeling is it’s not just one approach that works,” he said. “We have several ways in place to get to students, so that when they’re in trouble we’re hearing about it really fast.

“NSF is interested in what works, what doesn’t and what’s cost-effective so that we can transport this to other institutions, because (retention) is a nationwide problem in engineering,” Nicklow said. “We are typical retention-wise.”

When college officials learn that a student is struggling, they set out to intervene, Nicklow said. If it is an academic problem, for instance, he might write the student a letter and/or a peer mentor will make contact and suggest ways to improve, such as tutoring or making sure they get to class. The college’s advisement office is also in the loop and will reach out to the student.

Peer mentors also are trained to spot social or health issues, such as depression or alcohol abuse, and can help the student find help through the many support facilities on campus.

Nicklow said the program is teaching lessons that can translate throughout the SIUC campus, which also is focusing on retention issues.

“We’re learning how to get the biggest bang for the buck on these programs,” he said. “Really, none of what we’re doing is engineering-specific.”

The program also has prompted faculty to examine how the college approaches teaching freshmen and sophomores, which Nicklow said can require a much different approach than upperclassmen.

“Freshmen are a different breed, and we are figuring out that you have to approach them differently. You need more sensitivity, more interaction and more individualization. Maybe that is what we need to do until they get over that hump.”

The effort involves many University faculty and staff, Nicklow said. 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; Rhonda K. Kowalchuk, assistant professor, educational psychology and special education; Loen Graceson-Martin, chief academic adviser in the College of Engineering; Julie Eisenhauer, project coordinator; and Tarnisha Green, director of the minority engineering program.

Nicklow said he is optimistic the college will continue to improve its retention efforts and meet its goals.

“We’re doing very well, and that’s based on the results we’re seeing,” he said. “In a way, I think we’re kind of paving the road, though we certainly don’t know everything and this is a very complex problem. But we have some very good people on this campus working on this.”