UW News

February 8, 2017

College of Engineering’s STARS program wins $2.2M to improve access for low-income students

A University of Washington program aimed at increasing the number of economically and educationally disadvantaged students from Washington who graduate with engineering degrees has received a 3-year, $2.2 million grant that is expected to significantly increase the number of students the program can serve during that time period.

Incoming freshman can apply here to join the fall 2017 cohort of UW STARS students.

The College of Engineering’s Washington STate Academic RedShirt (STARS) program is one of three university initiatives across the state to receive funding from the Opportunity Expansion Fund, established by the legislature to help Washington universities fund programming that helps students earn high-demand bachelor’s degrees in science, engineering, computer science or STEM education.

The UW STARS program, which offers engineering students from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds extra academic support, will receive a one-time grant of $2.2 million from the Opportunity Expansion Fund passed by the Washington Legislature and funded by Microsoft.

The UW STARS program, which offers engineering students from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds extra academic support, will receive a one-time grant of $2.2 million from the Opportunity Expansion Fund passed by the Washington Legislature and funded by Microsoft.University of Washington

The statute, which passed in 2011 along with the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) fund, allowed companies until 2015 to donate high-tech research and development tax credits to the expansion fund account. Microsoft, the only company to contribute to the expansion fund, donated a total of $6 million.

STARS offers eligible students an additional year of academic support, mentoring and funding to build learning skills and help them “catch up” before applying to engineering departments. Historically, only 33 percent of UW students who hold Pell grants and intend to become engineers successfully complete those degrees — typically because of inadequate high school preparation.

“We’re providing extra support to help students who come from less privileged backgrounds learn some of the skills and prepare for the rigor in the curriculum that more affluent students get in high school,” said Eve Riskin, the UW College of Engineering’s Associate Dean for Diversity and Access.

“We really want students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds to become engineers because they bring a different perspective to problem-solving,” Riskin said.  “STARS students work hard and are really persistent in getting through college, which gives them the grit and determination you want on your team.”

Photo of two STARS students

STARS offers students such as Simreet Dhaliwal and Ying “Joey” Zhou (pictured above) extra academic support, a supportive community, networking opportunities and introductions to different engineering paths.University of Washington

STARS currently serves 32 incoming students each year, who spend an extra “redshirt” year at the UW taking specialized prerequisite classes from basic algebra to calculus to chemistry and building learning and career skills.

The Opportunity Expansion funding will allow the College of Engineering to establish an expanded support program serving up to 125 additional students each year from economically disadvantaged backgrounds — including community college transfer students — throughout their tenure at the UW.

The expanded STARS initiative will offer supplemental instruction in the math, chemistry and physics courses that are part of the standard engineering curriculum, as well as culturally-aware advising, professional development and career services. With the one-time Opportunity Expansion funding, the College of Engineering estimates that more than 180 additional students from low-income backgrounds will successfully complete engineering degrees over the three-year period.

Marie Arnold, a rising STARS sophomore, was just accepted into the Department of Computer Science & Engineering. Though she had excelled and taken the most advanced classes in her high school, her first year at the UW humbled her.

But the STARS program and support from peers and mentors built her back up, Arnold said, making her even stronger.

“I don’t think I would have been able to survive without STARS,” said Arnold.

“I came to college thinking I was a very smart person. I probably would have been too stubborn to ask for help, and too afraid to admit that I was lacking in certain areas. But STARS removes that stigma — you go to classes even if you think you already know it, you go to your tutoring just like everyone else and get the help you need,” Arnold said.

The path to becoming an engineer is challenging, and students need encouragement and support to succeed, said Mike Bragg, the Frank & Julie Jungers Dean of Engineering at the UW. STARS is just one of many College of Engineering programs designed to remove barriers that discourage women, underrepresented minorities and low-income students from pursuing engineering degrees and rewarding careers in the field.

“The UW College of Engineering is deeply committed to attracting and graduating a student population that reflects the diversity of our community,” Bragg said. “This one-time WSOS funding will help level the playing field and ensure all students have the opportunity to become successful engineers.”

For more information about STARS, contact Riskin at riskin@uw.edu.