University of Colorado boosts its diversity
The number of underrepresented students has doubled in the past five years, thanks to new programs and approaches. Underprepared students get a year to catch up
The University of Colorado (CU-Boulder) started applying engineering principles to diversity goals five years ago. Not only has the number of underrepresented students in engineering doubled, the ripple effects of changes are being felt across campus.
“We’re very data-driven and results- focused. We measure everything, from GPA to six-year graduation rates,” says Jacquelyn Sullivan, associate dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science. “When we looked at our demographics five years ago, we were not proud of what we found. Multicultural programs that produced incremental changes were not cutting it. We had to look at diversity and inclusion through a different lens.”
The data exposed disparities between minority and majority students: minority students averaged 2.93 GPA, below that crucial 3.0 point where many companies and graduate schools draw a cutoff. The six-year graduation rate for minority students was as low as 34 percent. An average of fifty-one minority students out of a total of over 3,000 enrolled in engineering each year.
Programs to change those numbers came out of that new understanding. The Broadening Opportunity through Leadership and Diversity (BOLD) Center now encompasses programs like Gold Shirt, modeled on athletics’ redshirt programs, which gives underprepared students a year to strengthen their basic skills. BOLD is also the home of Aspire, a summer bridge program for incoming students. CU Teach, a new program to train STEM teachers, awards engineering degrees with teaching certification, to raise the level of secondary engineering education.
“This is not about motivation, talent or ability. This is about opportunity,” says Sullivan. “We are broadening inclusion by creating multiple pathways to engineering.”
The numbers are improving
The new programs are working, with minority GPA now up to 3.14, compared to majority GPA at 3.22. Graduation rate is up to 53 percent, nearly the same as for majority students. Sullivan expects that any measurable differences will be gone within the next two years. The average number of minority students in engineering has doubled, to 121. Minorities are now 13 percent of the engineering school, up from 11 percent in 2000.
Women student enrollment has risen to 29 percent. But Sullivan isn’t satisfied with that incremental change, on a campus where over 50 percent of the students are women.
“We’re not satisfied to move at a glacial pace and measure advances in geologic time,” she says. “Our goal here is for the students to mirror the population in the state’s high schools.”
Unprepared students get a year to catch up
It’s not only the social justice aspect that fires the programs, as important as that is. It’s the national economic imperative to create products that can compete in a diverse world.
“We need diverse teams that are going to drive our nation’s economy,” she says. “The more diverse our teams, the more competitive our products.”
The Gold Shirt program is a response to the educational inequities that bring students to campus unprepared to master the engineering curriculum. Students with talent but lacking the academics to succeed in calculus and physics get a year to do what redshirted athletes do: strengthen themselves to get ready. Three-quarters of the Gold Shirt students are underrepresented minorities.
“It helped us realize that a lot of students we thought were ready were not,” says Sullivan. “We’re more careful in student placement now.” The program has grown, with broad participation. The original single section of pre-calculus has expanded to eight sections.
New approaches yield results
The Center for STEM Learning studies how students learn, and those results have changed classes across campus. Center director Noah Finkelstein, a CU physics professor, has changed the way physics is taught. Introductory courses are still large, but rather than long lectures, professors stop every five to ten minutes and pose questions for students to ponder. Students can respond to questions with clickers, and are encouraged to discuss the questions with other students. The goal is to engage students in their own learning, to become articulate about what they are learning, and be able to make predictions based on their knowledge.
“Now we can document that students learn two to three times as much as they used to and are performing better than students from classes that are not taught this way.”
A lever for change at CU-Boulder has been the Colorado Learning Assistant (LA) program. LAs are recruited from among the best students and hired to work with small groups of their peers. They aren’t there to disseminate information, but to help other students learn how to wrestle with ideas. Underrepresented students gain the most, but all students learn more.
“All too often, students turn in homework problems and perform as answer producers,” says Finkelstein. “We want them to be sense-makers. We’ve shifted the roles and tools we use to improve and redefine mastery.”
Outreach program prepares engineers to teach
The CU Teach program confers engineering degrees along with teaching certification for grades seven through twelve. It’s a long-term initiative to broaden diversity in the engineering profession.
Many kids, especially young women and underrepresented minorities, grow up without any direct contact with engineers, and they don’t understand what an engineering future can mean to them, Sullivan explains. They don’t see engineers on TV the way they see law enforcement officers or doctors and nurses. They lack language and reference points for engineering. Sullivan has found Hispanics on campus are especially enthusiastic about teaching.
Few high school engineering teachers have engineering credentials. Increasing the number of teachers with that background extends the reach of their education to more students, and opens career possibilities beyond education.
It’s a program that is being replicated on other campuses as well, including Washington State University (Pullman, WA) and the University of Washington (Seattle, WA).
“It’s all about replication and broader impact,” says Sullivan. “Less than that, and it’s not enough to move the needle. What if every one of this country’s 340 engineering schools produced fifty teachers a year?”
Sullivan won the Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education in 2008. That distinction gave her a bully pulpit from which to advocate for diversity in STEM education, to make the possible probable.
“Students coming here are coming to a campus where the inclusion light bulb has gone on,” she says.
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