Allen to Lead $1.6M Program to Retain Engineering Students

A collage of images of engineering students at work, one is reading data on a computer screen, two are wearing hard hats working to construct something and one is working in a lab building a mechanical device on wheels.The National Science Foundation (NSF), Intel and GE have selected The University of Texas at Austin for a $1.6 million grant to support an education program aimed at retaining freshman in engineering majors by teaching calculus through hands-on activities. Freshman calculus courses are a major barrier for retaining engineering students at UT Austin.

UT Austin is one of nine institutions across the United States to receive a grant from Graduate 10K+, a public-private partnership created to fund projects whose aim is to improve retention of undergraduates in engineering and computer science. The grants are funded with $10 million in donations from Intel and the GE Foundation as well as a personal donation from Mark Gallogly.

Chemical engineering professor Dave Allen, director of the UTeachEngineering Program at the Cockrell School of Engineering, is leading the new program, which seeks to engage engineering students in calculus through hands-on learning environments and teaching methods that have demonstrated improved learning. As part of the program, engineering students will apply the calculus being taught in their courses to design-based engineering problems using a combination of self-paced, online instructional materials and team-based activities.

“What we are trying to do is help students with courses that are traditionally barriers for freshmen,” Allen said. “We want to help them understand why it’s critical to learn this material to solve engineering problems. And we are using hands-on activities to help them learn the materials in different ways.”

In one design challenge, students are asked to use a miniature shaker table to simulate an earthquake, and they are then tasked to perform calculus to measure and model the earthquake’s effects on a building.

The Graduate 10K + grant will be initially used to develop and test the program on a small scale. By the fourth year of the grant, the goal is to incorporate engineering-centric curriculum for all engineering students taking freshman calculus.

Graduate 10K+ was created to help colleges and universities increase the annual number of graduates in engineering and computer science by 10,000 students. President Obama has made it a goal of his administration to address this problem and work to produce 1 million new science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the next decade.

Engineering and computer science offer careers with salaries that can make a life-changing difference, especially to first-generation college students and their families. These are fields in which women and minorities are chronically underrepresented. Engineering and computer science are also part of a general trend in which many undergraduates pursuing majors in STEM fields leave STEM entirely during their first two years in college.

“We welcome the opportunity to partner with industry to address the need to engage and retain graduates in engineering and computer science,” said NSF Acting Director Cora Marrett. “This partnership is a starting point, and we anticipate that others from the corporate and non-profit world will become partners in this important venture.”

Graduate 10K+ projects will operate for five years. Each of the projects has identified factors that can derail would-be engineers and computer scientists in their first or second year of undergraduate study. The projects take a targeted approach to addressing those factors.

View the NSF press release for a full list of Graduate 10K+ awardees and their projects.

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