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UCSB Designs Success Plan for Transfer Engineering Students

College undergrads are well aware that their third year is the moment of truth. Gone are the days of tentatively exploring one's major; gone is much of the flexibility students had to fulfill their prerequisites. In junior year, things get real.

That phenomenon is particularly true for engineering majors at UCSB, who go to one of the most consistently high-ranking engineering schools in the nation.

“In their junior year, they hit the engineering curriculum,” said Susannah Scott, a UCSB professor of chemical engineering. “That’s something like five courses at the same time of super hard engineering, and that’s what we expect of them.”

Unfortunately for many would-be engineers, the third year is also when they decide they can’t fulfill their ambitions, and often for reasons other than lack of ability, interest or willingness to work.

Often, in the junior-year pressure cooker, heightened expectations and a heavier course load can result in overwhelmed students.

It’s particularly tough for transfer students, who tend also to be from lower-income households, and the first in their families to shoot for an engineering degree.

These students often have jobs, Scott said, giving them less opportunity to take the appropriate classes, let alone time to finish demanding coursework.

Add to that the shock of moving from a community college to a university, and many of those students, who might otherwise become successful and gifted engineers, find themselves dropping out or opting for a less stringent field of study.

Hoping to help level the playing field for future engineers at UCSB, and aided by $4.8 million in education funding over five years from the National Science Foundation, Scott and colleagues are rolling out an ambitious program to assist academically talented low-income engineering students.

“We’re actively trying to understand what challenges these students face and where we can make a difference,” Scott said.

Called ESTEEM (Enhancing Success in Transfer Education for Engineering Majors), the program targets promising engineering transfer students, offering scholarship funding, outreach and academic counseling to help them move toward their degrees.

The initiative builds on a previous, successful smaller-scale effort to reach out to third-year engineering undergraduates on campus and give them that critical push to complete their degrees.

The scholarship funding is one of ESTEEM’s key components, meant to free up time the scholars would typically spend at jobs so they can participate more fully in their academics. Regular consultation with faculty mentors and advisers is required to take the guesswork out of deciding which classes to take next.

“At least at the beginning, particularly with these first-generation college attendees, there’s definitely a reluctance to come in and talk to professors or academic advisors one-on-one,” said Glenn Beltz, associate dean for undergraduate studies in UCSB's College of Engineering.

Often, this disconnect leads to students taking the wrong courses — “a big problem,” said Beltz, who also is a UCSB mechanical engineering professor, because the result can be failure to satisfy their curriculum, and delay their progress toward a degree.

Such a situation can be discouraging for students who haven't time nor money to prolong their university attendance, Beltz said. The earlier these transfer students can be reached, the better.

Facilitated by the UCSB Office of Education Partnerships, UCSB faculty and staff are working with Regional Alliance colleagues at Allan Hancock, Oxnard and Ventura colleges and SBCC to streamline outreach efforts and optimize coursework to help students prepare for upper-division engineering courses.

Community college students who become ESTEEM scholars keep their scholarships as they transition to UCSB.

Open to all low-income engineering students in good academic standing, ESTEEM also aims to address the lack of diversity in the STEM fields — an important challenge for UCSB and its partners in their roles as Hispanic-serving institutions.

Though often gifted academically, lower-income minority students tend to have relatively little exposure to the richness of engineering in their daily lives.

“Some students have maybe an inkling that engineering is what they’d like to do, but there’s nothing in their family or their peer group that encourages them about this,” said Michael Gerber, a research professor at the UCSB Gevirtz Graduate School of Education.

Gerber studies the challenges low-income and minority students face and the interventions that may help them. “Nobody sees that as a plausible life path for them,” he said.

To keep ESTEEM scholars motivated and connected, the program involves regular get-togethers with students, faculty and advisers, as well as industry guests from the engineering and technology sectors. Students may meet future colleagues or employers and grow their network as they consider future plans.

For engineers like Beltz and Scott, ESTEEM is a solution to the longstanding challenge of attracting and training talented and diverse students to become the next generation of engineers and problem-solvers.

“When you have to generate a range of possible solutions to really hard problems, the more different kinds of perspectives you have, the more likely it is that one of the things you come up with will actually work really well,” Scott said.

“I want the people that we train to be much more diverse than they currently are, because when I think of the contributions that engineering can potentially make to solving big problems, that diversity has been a strength,” she said.

For an educator like Gerber, this broad-reaching program signals something of a shift in attitude in higher education.

Traditionally, he said, colleges and universities have operated in a rather “elitist” mode, as a system that rewards and gives exposure to only a few students already starting with many advantages. But it is slowly moving to lift up as many talented ones as it can find.

“There’s an aspect of development of talent here, which is something that has fundamentally changed about higher education,” Gerber said. “We have this idea now that is kind of percolating that you’re not supposed to dispose of people. It’s no longer just survival of the fittest.”

To find out more about ESTEEM, visit http://esteem.ucsb.edu/.

— Sonia Fernandez and Andrea Estrada for UCSB.

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