UB Program Strives To Make Freshman Year For Engineering Students Kinder and Gentler (If Not Easier)

Release Date: April 7, 2000 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Ask a freshman engineering student at any university in the nation how things are going and you'll get an earful: instructors who zip through complex problems in seconds, hours spent studying long into the night and, worst of all, a deep-seated insecurity that the school's main objective is to weed out the weak performers.

But that's no longer the case at the University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), thanks to the Student Excellence Initiatives, which aims to make freshman year for engineering students easier to manage academically and less emotionally agonizing.

Results of this unique effort, implemented under the supervision of Associate Dean Michael Ryan, Ph.D., and now in its second year, have been remarkable: 90 percent of the students who participated in the initiative's small study groups returned to SEAS for their sophomore year, versus just 63 percent of those who did not.

Further, at least half -- and sometimes as many as three-quarters -- of the students in these groups felt that their participation helped increase their overall grade in the subject by a letter grade or more.

The transition to college from high school is tough, regardless of what courses a student takes. But for the freshman engineering student, extremely demanding coursework often is coupled with an unspoken sense that only a select few will make it.

"Many students felt like they were being thrown up against this steep cliff and the idea was whoever hadn't fallen off at the end of four years would be an engineer," recalled William G. Wild, Jr., a 1982 graduate of SEAS.

Wild has returned to UB, where he also earned master's degrees in English and engineering, as director of special student programs to launch the Student Excellence Initiatives.

According to Wild, the program goes much further than simply helping to improve grade outcomes in certain courses. It's about effecting a culture change in engineering education, he said, moving away from a "weed-them-out mentality" to a program that strives to help each student reach his or her potential.

"In this scenario," said Wild, "all the fit and willing survive, and not merely a select percentage."

The idea was not to make the academics any less rigorous on the students, said Wild.

"If you watered down the engineering curriculum, then our buildings would shake and planes would fall from the skies. The climb is necessary, but it should be a much different process; it should be a structured climb."

Wild and Ryan work with both SEAS and College of Arts and Sciences faculty members to continually evolve courses and support services to meet student needs without sacrificing academic rigor.

Wild said the Student Excellence Initiatives give students both the academic and nonacademic tools they need to have a fair chance at success.

The program includes five major parts:

• An "opening-day" event at orientation designed to encourage a special sense of community and team spirit among all freshmen engineering students and with SEAS faculty

• Identification of academically underprepared students from the time of acceptance, providing them with academic support, advisement and individualized career counseling to help them find their interests within, or even beyond, engineering

• Small study groups in calculus, physics and chemistry -- open to all engineering students -- that meet weekly under the guidance of a SEAS staff member to work on course material, problems and engineering study skills

• A mandatory introductory engineering course, "Case Studies in Engineering," designed to answer the questions many freshmen have about the different engineering disciplines and to introduce them to the exciting paths an engineer can take

• A program that connects freshmen with SEAS faculty mentors who help students navigate the transition to the university and to learn more about engineering as a profession

The effort begins long before students arrive on campus in the fall.

Based on detailed studies Wild undertook last summer, SEAS now knows that a student's scores on the New York State Regents exams in math, chemistry and physics are important -- but traditionally underutilized -- predictors of his or her success in engineering school.

"It's not a question of not being good enough," said Wild, "but engineering is a building-block profession. If you don't have the first block, then everything else will be shaky from thereon."

Since incorporating Regents scores into engineering admissions decisions, the school is rejecting about 8 percent more of the applicants than it did before.

But that doesn't mean that students who have low scores on some of the criteria can't get into SEAS; it simply means that now, if they are accepted into SEAS, they will be required to take special skill-building steps.

"The philosophy behind these initiatives is that we're saying to students, 'Your goal is not to get into SEAS; your goal is to get out with a degree,'" he said.

After just one semester, the number of students enrolled in the small study groups doubled, and by now, Wild estimates, one in every three or four freshmen has enrolled in at least one of these groups. In fact, the groups are filled to capacity, even though they are purely voluntary and are not taken for credit.

"Study-skills courses are not new," said Wild, "but they are not typically designed to address the issues engineering students face. The question for us was, how could we make it relevant to engineering?"

Taught by Wild and Richard Dutton, senior programmer in UB's Science and Engineering Node Services, and assisted by student tutors, the study groups are highly interactive and have a student-teacher ratio that does not exceed 10:1. The objectives are to help students understand how to approach course material through "concept maps" of textbooks and "thoughtful practice" of problems while facilitating the critical transition from learning as high-school students to learning as college freshmen. The experience also drives home an essential point: Students are not alone.

Referring to the "climb" that is the engineering curriculum, Wild noted: "Nobody climbs alone here, unless by choice."

The "opening day" event that occurs before classes begin also is designed to make that point clear to students. During the day-long event, students are assigned to groups that work together on a fun engineering project, and spend the day discussing social and academic issues with faculty mentors, upper-class student leaders and representatives of SEAS student clubs.

Ironically, the Student Excellence Initiatives program was spurred by an interest in boosting retention of students. However, Wild has found, it sometimes works best for the students when it works against retention.

"Occasionally, we've found, we actually have to work against retention," said Wild. "You can keep some students in engineering in order to keep your numbers up, or you can tell the student the truth, which sometimes is 'This is not the place for you.' The only thing we are aiming for here is the welfare of the student."

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