Professor poses with students

Engineering a strong foundation

Grant-winning learning community gives tomorrow's builders a concrete start

November 14, 2018
Two students pose
Dalton Ellis, left, and Ariel Lafuente became fast friends through the new Engineering Learning Community (ELC), which is increasing retention and success rates. In top photo, the two pose with the creator of the pilot program, Assistant Professor Maryam Darbeheshti (front), and fellow ELC student Michal Dunovski (middle back).

Just more than a year ago, Ariel Lafuente walked onto the CU Denver campus as an apprehensive freshman. The new mechanical-engineering student from San Antonio, Texas, was unsure of his choices and chances of success in his targeted field.

Now Lafuente, already a teaching assistant in his second year, credits the personalized support and diverse resources he found at CU Denver for a boost in confidence in himself and in his future.

“Honestly, the first year of college is a little bit scary, and by the time I got into my second semester, I already felt like I had a second family,” Lafuente said, referring largely to the faculty and peers in his Engineering Learning Community (ELC), a First Year Experience (FYE) program spearheaded by his advisor.

Keeping students here

Maryam Darbeheshti, PhD, created the program — now in its third year and recently bolstered by a $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant — because of high engineering dropout rates nationwide. An estimated 40 percent of engineering students never return as sophomores, and another 20 percent give up later, before gaining a diploma in the highly-demanded field.

Financial strain and outside responsibilities account for part of the attrition. The recent Urban S-STEM Collaboratory award will target that issue with $1 million set aside for scholarships, said Darbeheshti, assistant professor in Mechanical Engineering.

Other reasons for high dropout rates include not connecting with peers, not grasping how required math classes translate to engineering, and not getting a hands-on sense of the field – all issues Darbeheshti’s ELC targets.

Building a learning community

The ELC’s defined engineering focus and its three required core classes set it apart from other programs on campus, said Christy Heaton, First Year Experiences director. Heaton and the Office of Undergraduate Experiences worked closely with Darbeheshti in establishing the ELC.

“At least six times in one week, these students are seeing each other,” Heaton said of the power of the three, specially-designed courses, which cover English composition, calculus and mechanical design. “So, they are building this engineering community fairly quickly.” And research clearly links academic and social interaction to higher retention rates, she said.

“I remember the first day I walked into the ELC,” Lafuente said, recalling how he and two other students made a quick connection. “Those two people are my best of friends to this day.” Being “comfortable” with his classmates made asking for help in class less intimidating and forming study groups outside of class easier, he said.

Showing students the ‘why’

Comparing the numbers

89 percent of ELC students passed Calculus I.

60 percent of non-ELC students passed Calculus I.

First-year engineering students face a rigorous basic course load, and the curriculum’s relevance to the field often does not come clear until students reach more advanced course levels, said Dakota Edmonds, a master’s student in mechanical engineering, who served first as a Peer Advocate Leader (PAL) and then as a teaching assistant (TA) during the ELC’s two pilot years.

Through a hands-on design course that ends in their building a solar-powered vehicle, ELC students are exposed immediately to the machine shop, a place Edmonds said engineering students generally don’t experience until their senior year.

“It was really cool seeing those industrial-sized machines and how they cut metal and work with all of this code and just the whole process,” Lafuente said. “It really opened my eyes to how engineering works.”

“It’s really a true reflection of campus collaboration and how schools and colleges and departments can work together to provide this engaging experience for first-year students.”

– Christy Heaton

Working together for student success

In the ELC, English and math courses are also geared toward engineering students, Heaton said. “Those faculty are going into those courses knowing that they are teaching only engineering students, so they are thinking about the way they are disseminating that information.”

Lafuente said he liked the focus on scientific writing based on arguments and proof in his English composition course. “Now whenever I learn something online or whatever, I always take it with a grain of salt,” he said.

Numbers comparing a 2017 ELC Calculus I course to the same non-ELC course the year before suggest that the engineering emphasis helps. ELC students outdid their non-ELC peers, passing at a rate of 89 percent compared to 60 percent.

“It’s really a true reflection of campus collaboration and how schools and colleges and departments can work together to provide this engaging experience for first-year students,” Heaton said.

Two students study
Ariel Lafuente, left, studies with fellow mechanical engineering student Dalton Ellis. Both joined a pilot learning community their first year, which made finding study partners easier, Lafuente said.

Helping lead the way

Building a community based on faculty and peer mentorship makes a difference in student success, said Edmonds, who was Lafuente’s TA in the ELC.

“It helped some students get part-time jobs with professors, so they could start doing research already in their first semester,” he said. “I think programs like this are what’s going to help the engineering program at CU Denver grow and become a better program as a whole.”

Lafuente said his doubts from his first days at college are long gone. “I feel like this school really provided me with opportunities I don’t think I would have had at a different school,” he said. “I’m glad CU Denver had the doors open for me. And the ELC was a really big bonus.”