People with pencils drafting

She built it – and they stayed

Engineering retention program nets NSF grant, $1 million for scholarships

November 1, 2018

Discouraged by the many freshman students who never returned as sophomores, Maryam Darbeheshti, PhD, put her engineering mind to work and built something. Her new creation – a pilot program aimed at keeping students in the field – flourished, boosting student success and cross-campus partnerships.

Now the program has grabbed the eye of the National Science Foundation (NSF), netting the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) and the university $1.6 million. Of that, $1 million will go toward scholarships aimed at bringing promising young engineering students to CU Denver.

“The main goal is to improve student success through increased retention and graduation rates,” said Darbeheshti, assistant professor in the department of  Mechanical Engineering. With the Urban S-STEM Collaboratory award, the project will target urban-campus issues and demographics, such as the disconnect commuting can create for students and the high proportion of under-represented populations.

Engaging with city, national peers

Engineering students at work
Peer mentorship and hands-on learning are prime components of the Engineering Learning Community program, aimed at engraining students in the critical field in the first year.

“We will bring in talented and financially needy students from Denver-area high schools,” Darbeheshti said. “Then we will support their efforts through the Engineering Learning Community (ELC) program and monitor their success as part of a tri-institutional study.”

CU Denver combined forces with the similarly-sized University of Memphis and Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis urban campuses in soliciting the NSF grant to boost the scope of the study.

The universities, which divided a $5 million award, will research and compare high-impact learning techniques for diversifying and increasing the engineering population. Researchers hope the study, which runs from fall 2019 through spring 2024, can help address a national deficit in the vital profession.

Creatively filling a critical need

The four principal investigators
Left to right: Dean Martin Dunn, Professor Tom Altman, Assistant Professor Maryam Darbeheshti and Professor Michael Jacobson are co-principal investigators of a five-year tri-institutional study funded by the National Science Foundation and aimed at boosting engineering student success.

Scientific innovation spurred nearly half of all economic growth during the past half-century, and the increase in STEM jobs was double that of other fields between 2009 and 2015, according to a 2017 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Yet, fewer than 40 percent of students who enter college with the intent of graduating in a STEM field succeed in gaining that diploma.

“We are differentiating ourselves with new ways of doing things, and the NSF support validates our creative ideas,” said CEAS Dean Martin Dunn, PhD. “And building communities that facilitate student success aligns with the university’s strategic goals.”

Dunn joins Darbeheshti, Mathematical & Statistical Sciences Professor Michael Jacobson, PhD, and Computer Science and Engineering Professor Tom Altman, PhD, as co-principal investigators in the five-year study.

Pilot program proves promising

The ELC program, also buoyed by the help of Undergraduate Experiences, includes a hands-on design engineering class, a calculus class focused on engineering applications, and a composition course centered on writing for engineers that the students take together their first year. Dunn applauded the multi-departmental collaboration.

“We are amplifying the engineering content through this curriculum, and we are also enhancing cross-disciplinary partnerships.” The program goes well beyond original curriculum in addressing student needs, including a focus on mentorship, and the data suggest it works.

“We ran this pilot program for two years, and it was very successful in improving retention rates and decreasing DFW rates,” Darbeheshti said, noting that research suggests as many as half of first-year engineering students drop out before their second year. With her ELC program, the majority of students returned as sophomores (72 percent from spring 2018 data), and the researchers expect those numbers to go up.

A recruitment effort for the first 20- to 25-student cohort for fall 2019 has launched. Students who commit to the Engineering Learning Community program can garner merit-based scholarships of up to $10,000 a year for two years. For successful participants after that period, organizers will help seek other funding resources so that those students can continue on and earn degrees.

“The multi-campus study will look at and compare teaching aspects to further improve programs and retention rates,” Altman said. “While it’s focused on only engineering right now, we definitely hope to expand to other sciences down the road. We see this as potentially being long-term and far-reaching.”

“We are differentiating ourselves with new ways of doing things, and the NSF support validates our creative ideas. And building communities that facilitate student success aligns with the university’s strategic goals.”

– CEAS Dean Martin Dunn