A collaboration to foster engineers among students of color


Despite some improvements in the numbers of Hispanic and Black engineering graduates from four-year institutions, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities reports that these groups remain underrepresented in the field. The number of American Indian graduates in engineering is also very low: only 32 states have at least 1% of American Indians among their 18- to 24-year-old residents.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) wants to increase the numbers of graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) from underrepresented groups. So it recently awarded cooperative agreements of up to $55 million to five organizations through the National Defense Education Program (NDEP) to foster the development of two-year institution/community college STEM education consortia.

Tapping partners

One of those organizations is the Inclusive Engineering Consortium (IEC). It will use a $10.9 million grant to deliver its “2to4” program, which aims to help first-generation, underrepresented community college students transition to minority-serving institutions (MSIs) to complete four-year electrical and computer engineering degrees. 

2to4 partner organizations include Tennessee State University, Jackson State University, Howard University and other MSIs. The program’s corporate members include Intel, Tektronix and others with several participating in IEC’s Pathways Program.

“We hope to create a culture where almost everything that happens in terms of developing opportunities for students is done collaboratively,” said Kenneth Connor, principal investigator for the grant and professor emeritus at RPI.

The 2to4 program is serving students who could benefit the most from attending and earning their degree at a historically Black college or university (HBCU), Hispanic-serving institution (HSIs), or tribal college or university (TCU). Attending one of these four-year colleges is optional for community college students, but the program aims to inform them about the existence of the schools and the benefits of attending.

“The learning experience at minority-serving institutions is (enhanced by) the remarkable culture that exists there,” Connor said. “We want to ensure that those students know about all their opportunities and are ready for them.”

A dynamic network

There are several main characteristics of the 2to4 program. First, it is a “network of networks” that offers the DoD more than a single network of community colleges. Each of the partner organizations has existing relationships with community colleges and could be the hub of a consortium on its own. These institutions will form one large consortium of 30 universities and more than 50 community colleges.

The consortium’s extensive network will allow students to work and interact with people at all these institutions. “That (level of interaction) is fairly unique,” said Connor. “There is a combination of people from very different communities that opens up opportunities to students,” Connor said. “We love the term community college, with its reference to community,” added Barry Sullivan, co-investigator and project coordinator for the grant and director of grants for the IEC. “But that shouldn’t be a constraint. These students should have the opportunity to broaden their horizons. And our consortium will do that.”

Another characteristic of the program is that it emphasizes personalized pathways. A pathway, noted Sullivan, has many branches and many tributaries. The 2to4 program personalizes each student’s pathway by offering opportunities for professional development, active engagement, financial support and transition support.

“You can’t have one program that fits everybody’s needs,” Connor said, “particularly when you have students going from a two-year to a four-year school. They’ve had to make a lot of compromises to go that route. They have family responsibilities. They may be older, or they have limited financial resources.”

The smaller schools have relatively small numbers of engineering students and need more internal resources or industry connections to offer outstanding professional development opportunities. But the combined number of students from all institutions who will benefit from this program is more than 5,000.

Mentoring is key

Mentoring is a critical aspect of the program. Its multidimensional, multilayered approach includes peer mentoring, mentoring from a faculty advisor and mentoring from internship supervisors.

“We emphasize that when students become interns, they’ve just gained another mentor. We want that to be a very rich mentoring relationship and one that persists even when the student returns to campus,” Connor said.

The program’s transition support aims to build continuity between the advisors at community colleges and the four-year schools. The students at the two-year schools will have access to advisors at the four-year school, and when they transfer to the four-year school, they will keep their advisor in the two-year school. The ongoing contact with the advisor from the two-year school ensures that there will be a better understanding of the students’ backgrounds.

“Ultimately, we’d like to see the separation between the two-year and four-year school become blurred,” Connor said. “(We’d like) to see students being able to take classes at the four-year school while they’re at the two-year school and vice versa, which gives them opportunities.”

This blurring of two-year and four-year boundaries would help students who are not on a direct path in completing their coursework and need to take courses out of sequence.

“There are many reasons why students get ahead or behind,” Connor said. “Having another opportunity at another place to take a basic course can be useful.”

Faculty collaborations

Connor also mentions that he would like to see faculty from two-year and four-year colleges collaborate on teaching courses. He noted that this would help the community college stay more up-to-date. For example, he observed that in a few cases, the people teaching the basic circuits course for electrical or computer engineers at the community colleges aren’t electrical engineers. Working with four-year faculty could help them stay up with the subject matter and introduce the latest ideas in their classroom.

Blurring the lines also applies to students.

“Even though they may have moved out of the community college’s system,” Connor said, “it shouldn’t be like the old school throws them over the wall and never talks to them again. We want the people working (in both places) to help students to be talking to one another.” Moreover, said Connor, “the students from the four-year school and the students from the two-year school should be talking to one another.”

Goal: Double the number

With the help of the grant, Connor and Sullivan plan to double the number of computer and electrical engineering students within the consortium who start with two years at a community college and then transfer to a four-year college. That would mean the 5-10% of engineering students now transferring to four-year colleges would increase to 10-20% within five years.

And, noted Connor, 10% to 20% may be a very conservative number.

“We are hoping that doubling the actual number is not that aggressive of a goal,” he said. “So we’re going to shoot for more than that.”

About the Author

Michele Hujber
Michele Hujber is a freelance writer for higher education institutions and related organizations.