Excellence in undergrad education

Posted on 19. Nov, 2010 by in Alumni, Gift Report, Issues, Students

In the past, surviving “gate-keeper” engineering undergraduate courses in subjects such as statics, dynamics and general physics was somewhat of a rite of passage: Students who “got” the material generally continued their engineering education.

However, some students who struggled in these courses simply dropped out of engineering—a trend College of Engineering Dean Paul Peercy calls unacceptable. “We needed a program that could help students succeed in engineering,” he says.

Launched a decade ago, that program evolved into what today is known as the Undergraduate Learning Center. The program is made possible through a generous grant from The Grainger Foundation. “The ULC/tutoring program was created to help improve the quality of learning in engineering, and to promote student-centered learning,” says Jia-Ling Lin, director of engineering supplemental instruction programs.

Student solving equations

A gift from alumnus Wade Fetzer and his wife Bev transformed former interview rooms in Engineering Hall into a vibrant space in which students study, learn and snack together. Photo: David Nevala

At the initiative’s core are thousands of year-round (including summer) one-on-one and peer-to-peer tutoring sessions that students say have enhanced their experience as engineering undergraduates. “These programs provided another way for me to gain a good understanding of the materials taught in class. Since the tutor is also a peer, it provided a comfortable learning environment,” says Mai Lee Chang, who earned a certificate in international engineering and her bachelor’s degree in engineering mechanics and astronautics in 2010 and now is a first-year PhD student in industrial and systems engineering.

Created specifically to reduce academic barriers for underrepresented groups in engineering, tutoring by request enables women, minority students and first-year transfer students to schedule an individual tutoring session. The students can receive help in more than 20 introductory and intermediate-level courses.

Each week, undergraduate engineering students lead about 80 hours’ worth of drop-in tutoring sessions for more than 40 engineering courses. Held four evenings a week, this peer-to-peer tutoring in math, chemistry, physics, statistics or engineering helps students enrolled in the associated courses complete homework and study for exams.

Supplementary instruction sessions also occur weekly. These more formal tutoring opportunities, which meet two hours per week, support students enrolled in statics, dynamics, calculus-based mechanics, and calculus-based electricity and magnetism.

The Undergraduate Learning Center initiative has helped to stem the age-old course-induced exodus from engineering, says college Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Steven Cramer. “This program has been attributed to significant increases in undergraduate student retention, particularly in the first two years of their college education and especially for students who originate from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he says.

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