Two major grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) totaling nearly $2.5 million will fund two projects designed to boost opportunities and improve graduation rates for a Cal Poly Pomona’s diverse student population.
The first project, “Career development in construction Engineering Through Academy and Industry Network (CERTAIN),” aims to increase the number of graduates from the college’s construction engineering and management program (CEM) for high-achieving students from diverse backgrounds. The project’s team members are civil engineering faculty Jeyoung Woo, Ph.D., the principal investigator (PI), Yasser Salem, Ph.D., Jinsung Cho, Ph.D., Ghada M. Gad, Ph.D., and Ron Yeung, Ph.D., associate dean for Academic Affairs and Student Success for the College of Engineering.
The CERTAIN project focuses on scholarships. With nearly $1.5 million from the NSF for this five-year project, about $900,000, 60 percent of the grant money, will fund 150 individual scholarships. The scholarships will go to incoming CEM students, both first-time freshman and transfer students, who meet the scholarship criteria. More scholarships will be provided as students meet certain milestones, such as participating in pre-arranged summer internships with participating construction companies or by choosing academic tracks that lead to a master’s degree at CPP.
Funds are also allocated for recruitment and retention efforts, including information sessions, guest lectures, and advising sessions. The CERTAIN project will provide high-achieving, diverse students with the financial support to complete their education. The project will also connect collaborators in the industry with high-quality interns, providing the interns with paid, real-word engineering experience.
The CERTAIN project also aims to increase professional opportunities for underrepresented minorities (URM) and increase the number of engineering graduates headed for a construction industry career. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10 percent of URMs (female, Black and Hispanic) are employed in construction management positions. Further, 79 percent of construction companies are struggling to find qualified workers, according to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC). This need for capable engineers in the construction industry is an opportunity for motivated, high-performing engineering graduates with industry experience through internships.
“It’s a win-win situation for all,” said Woo, civil engineering assistant professor and the project’s PI. “Students will be happy because they get a job, and the construction industry will also be happy because they will get a quality employee.”
Woo is also leading as a PI on the second NSF grant-funded project, “Bridging Institutions to Decrease Gaps in Engineering Education (BRIDGE).” With nearly $1 million in funding, this project aims to reduce the years needed to obtain a degree for transfer students. Along with Woo, the project team is composed of faculty members across the campus— Winny Dong, Ph.D., from the chemical and materials engineering department; Jinsung Cho, Ph.D., from the civil engineering department; Brian J. Ramirez from the mechanical engineering department, Denise Kennedy from the early childhood studies department; and M. Ron Yeung. The project also partners with three institutions where a significant population of CPP’s transfer students come from—Mt. San Antonio College, Citrus College and Victor Valley College.
On average, 33 percent of the transfer students at Cal Poly Pomona graduate within two years. In stark contrast, only 6 percent of the transfer students in the College of Engineering graduate within two years. With transfer students making up just over a third of both the civil engineering and mechanical engineering population, this project presents a significant opportunity to improve graduation rates for students in the College of Engineering.
“In general, transfer students are spending two to three years in their previous institution and then another four to five years at Cal Poly Pomona to earn their bachelor’s degree,” Woo said. “This means some transfer students spend eight years to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.”
Woo realized that the transfer pathway from community colleges to Cal Poly Pomona lacked the necessary lower-division engineering courses. In theory, transfer students are expected to complete lower-division engineering courses while attending their previous institution. When they transfer into Cal Poly Pomona, these students are expected to register for upper division courses and graduate within a two-year window.
In practice, prospective transfer students tend to prioritize a higher GPA rather than on completing lower-division engineering courses. Although a high GPA is a significant factor for acceptance into Cal Poly Pomona, students who transfer to the university with only freshmen level engineering courses will require additional years of study to obtain an engineering degree. Additionally, many transfer students who would take lower-division engineering courses at their community college find that the courses are not offered by their school, according to Woo
BRIDGE tackles both issues. The NSF funds will help create a transfer pathway program for the civil and mechanical engineering programs that includes lower-division engineering courses. If transfer students in those respective majors complete these courses while enrolled in the three partner institutions, they will obtain a “certification,” and Cal Poly Pomona will grant “bonus” points towards their admission viability.
BRIDGE also establishes a faculty learning community that shares resources with the instructors from community colleges to develop and teach lower-division engineering courses in a way that mirrors how the College of Engineering teaches. The three partner institutions will collaborate with CPP in this effort before scaling it across other community colleges in California.
To further make the transition to CPP for transfer students smooth, a Summer Bridge program will be taught by faculty from the civil and mechanical engineering departments to refresh transfer students on courses they took in their previous institution, but from a CPP perspective. For example, civil engineering faculty will demonstrate cutting-edge survey equipment that might not be available in most of the community colleges. Getting transfer students up to speed on updated or additional engineering tools will help to eliminate knowledge disparities before transfer students take upper-division courses in the college.
Once enrolled, transfer students will also take a first-year transfer course that will orient them in a manner similar to CPP’s first-year course for incoming engineering freshmen. “This helps transfer students belong, engage and graduate sooner,” Woo said.
Both NSF-funded projects are massive, multi-year efforts that seek to improve both the educational experience and outcomes for a diverse population of students.
“Ultimately, we want to produce a high-quality workforce,” Woo said.