PULLMAN, Wash. The strategy of “redshirting” allows promising college athletes to sit out a season to get oriented in preparation for four successful years of competition. That same idea is at play to prepare undergraduates for a degree in engineering.
It is part of a collaborative project between Washington State University and the University of Washington: the Washington STate Academic RedShirt (STARS) in Engineering Program.
“Our graduates play an essential role in growing our economy in a wide range of fields, including in the aerospace and power industries,” said Candis Claiborn, dean of the WSU College of Engineering and Architecture. “Our aim is to grow the number of our engineering students, keep them here and produce graduates who are ready for the workforce.
“It is just this type of partnership and collaboration that helps to build our future workforce, drive innovation and build a stronger economy for the state of Washington.”
Not enough grads for top fields
The redshirt strategy is just one of the creative approaches taken by institutions receiving grants through a public-private partnership called Graduate 10K+ – so named because of its goal of stimulating comprehensive action at universities and colleges to increase the annual number of graduates in engineering and computer science by 10,000.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) has partnered with donors to make grants to institutions that aim to improve retention of these undergraduates. The effort is funded with $10 million from Intel, the GE Foundation and private investor Mark Gallogly.
The NSF will provide WSU with $700,000 and the University of Washington with $970,000 over the five-year grant.
Engineering and computer science are fields in which business and industry leaders lament an inadequate supply of graduates with necessary knowledge. Both fields are dynamic: they encompass areas of focus that didn’t even exist a couple of decades ago – from green energy and advanced robotics to cybersecurity.
Both fields offer good 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.
Sticking with STEM
Engineering and computer science are also part of a general trend in which many undergraduates pursuing majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields exit these areas entirely during their first two years in college.
U.S. President Barack Obama has made it a goal of his administration to address this problem and work to produce a million new STEM graduates in the next decade.
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, and each project has taken a targeted approach to addressing those factors.
Underrepresented students targeted
In Washington, STARS recruits highly motivated Pell Grant-eligible students from high-needs high schools into a five-year program that sets the stage for success as an engineering major. Each year, 32 students will be chosen at both universities for a total of 320 students over five years.
The program targets low-income, motivated students who are eligible for federal Pell grants or who come from schools with a large number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches. Historically, students who receive Pell grants have been less likely to complete engineering degrees.
“Engineering education needs to adapt to the tortoises, not just the hares,” said Eve Riskin, principal investigator of STARS and associate dean of engineering at the University of Washington. “We’re talking about investing an extra year in what will hopefully be a 30-year engineering career.”
This five-year redshirt strategy for engineering originated at the University of Colorado, where it’s been very successful.