Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

February 26, 2016


To raise persistence among underserved populations, the College of Engineering tailored a program with intensive early academic and holistic support

Sonya Cunningham headshot

A first-generation college graduate herself, Sonya Cunningham, assistant director of Diversity & Access for the College of Engineering, advises STARS students. Photo: Filiz Efe McKinney

The College of Engineering’s many departments have among the most demanding curricula at the college level, and many students change course after challenging math, chemistry and physics prerequisites. The uneven preparation from low-income high schools doesn’t give at-risk students much of a chance, and those are the students who often struggle to adjust quickly enough to college life and the high-stakes, fast-paced course load. Looking for ways to address these issues while increasing diversity, the College of Engineering adopted STARS, the Washington STate Academic RedShirt program, a National Science Foundation-funded retention program, in 2013.

“This is an academic redshirt year versus an athletic redshirt,” says Sonya Cunningham, assistant director of Diversity & Access, who oversees the program at the Seattle campus. “It means essentially we want you on the team, but you’re not quite ready. Students start exercising their academic muscles for a year.”

About 32 incoming first-year students from Washington who qualify for certain financial aid are invited to join the intensely rigorous program based on their expressed intent to major in engineering. Grit and resilience are the other essential ingredients, so students are comprehensively screened for a strong drive to complete an engineering degree.

Courtney Seto, an industrial and systems engineering major who joined the STARS program in 2013, appreciates the time and support that let her adjust to new expectations. “At first I thought the STARS courses wouldn’t be that hard, but it was definitely harder than I thought it would be. The classes taught me study skills, how to work on your own and be independent and self-motivate.”

The STARS program helps students adjust by fostering a supportive community, focusing on core academics, and showcasing options and opportunities to help them choose the engineering path that is right for them.

The 2015 STARS Cohort with President Ana Mari Cauce: According to the College of Engineering, historically, fewer than half of the entering first-year engineering students at the UW will complete their degrees. The success rate is even lower for students from low-income backgrounds. The STARS program is designed to dramatically change these outcomes. Photo courtesy of the College of Engineering.

Fostering community requires a multipronged approach: Beginning with their own transition week at the start of the academic year, STARS students spend a lot of time together. They are required to live on campus for two years (starting in fall 2016, they will live in the Engineering Living Learning Community), they go through many required classes with their cohort and Cunningham even requires them to attend group study sessions. Joshua Quichocho, a computer engineering major who started with STARS in 2014, says, “At first I didn’t like it, but over time it became really useful. When I work with other people, I can work much longer. I get really tired doing one hour of calculus on my own.” Having dedicated staff support also goes a long way and STARS students are required to meet quarterly with their academic adviser in their first year and at least twice during their second year.

“Often students think all they need to do are academics. Well, it would be nice if human beings could live in a compartment like that,” says Cunningham. “But students are typically navigating way more, and everything that happens to them outside of academics affects how they’re doing academically.”

Building academic skills and persistence for high-level applications: Even for students who had good grades in high school AP Calculus, math for engineering is at a whole different level, focusing on problem solving and critical thinking for practical applications rather than memorizing formulas. The faster pace can often mean that one failed test early on tips a student toward giving up rather than readjusting their expectations and working harder. But with a little extra preparation and time to adjust, they can still be successful. “Because students have so many struggles in math and chemistry, we wanted to make sure they had a really good foundation to work off of,” explains Cunningham. Seto saw the value early on. “The math class was helpful for the intensity of preparation because the first test was so in-depth and made you think critically,” she says.

STARS mentors teaching a class

Courtney Seto (right), an industrial engineering major, co-teaches a STARS First-year Interest Group (FIG) in 2014 after her own year as a STARS student. Cunningham encourages advanced cohorts to stay involved with incoming students. Photo: Filiz Efe McKinney

Demystifying and preparing for career paths: With so many different majors that can lead to specialized careers, many students know little about opportunities for the future, whether they were previously exposed to high school engineering programs or not. Yet by the end of their first year, STARS students must choose a major and apply. Engineering Exploration is a class designed to demystify the various fields, and, though it is open to all UW students, it’s required for STARS students in their first quarter.

“Faculty come to talk about different departments and the research they’re doing because we’re trying to get students to be open to new possibilities,” explains Cunningham. STARS students also complete a Career Services certificate, learn about internships and practice professional development skills early on.

STARS students who earn a 3.0 at the end of the year are guaranteed admission to an engineering department, and the majority are accepted by their first choice. By their sophomore year, even though they are still taking prerequisites, they are able to start integrating into their department and building relationships with faculty that can lead to research and internship opportunities.

By the end of their redshirt year, Cunningham sees the transformation in each student. Seto stayed involved as an upperclassman to mentor new students through the engineering First-year Interest Group and to help plan community-building events and activities. Quichocho relishes his early acceptance to his chosen major. “A few of us talked about it, and if we weren’t in STARS, we wouldn’t be as prepared,” he says.

The College of Engineering reports that the STARS program is already positively impacting student retention and performance. STARS students in the first two years achieved higher GPAs and performed better in their math and science courses relative to eligible but non-participating students. Survey data also show that STARS students are significantly more familiar with student resources around campus. The college is also getting more diverse as it grows: Enrollment of under-represented minority students in engineering has increased by 93.5% since STARS began, while enrollment in the college as a whole increased by only 30.5%.

Today’s engineering graduates will work in an increasingly diverse workforce while solving new problems. So far, challenging students to commit to hard work while providing a foundation of academic, personal and professional success resources and services is resulting in graduates who will truly be prepared for the field of the future.