Program offers helping hand on the road to higher learning
ASU reaching out to young students in smaller Arizona communities to open doors to careers in engineering
Victor Robles recently graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering – and with hopes of going to graduate school and pursuing research in communications technology for radar systems. In addition to his academic achievements, Robles has been vice president of the ASU chapter of the Society of Mexican-American Engineers and Scientists, an officer in the ASU chapter of the Society of Hispanic and Professional Engineers and a mentor to younger university students. He’d like to earn a doctorate and go on to a career engineering “the most innovative top-of-the-line high technology.”
Robles says that only a few years ago he never would have imagined that today he would be anywhere near this point on a professional career path. He’s been returning to his hometown in Douglas, Ariz., to speak to local high school and community college students about how they might follow in his footsteps.
Robles is one of hundreds of students benefitting each year from the Motivated Engineering Transfer Students (METS) program that provides opportunities for careers in engineering and computer science for Arizona students starting out in community colleges. The program has “completely changed my life,” Robles says. “Had it not been for the knowledge I got [through METS] and the encouragement to pursue graduate school, I would have been just another undergraduate student at the library with very little to show for it.”
For many years, hundreds of students have been transferring into ASU’s engineering programs each year. Until 2002, however, there was only a single orientation event to support transfer students. Today, through the growth of the METS program, there are opportunities for scholarships, a campus meeting place, seminars, mentoring and networking opportunities designed specifically for transfer students.
Recruitment and retention results are demonstrating the program’s effectiveness. In the 2009 fall semester, almost 230 students from community colleges and other schools had transferred to ASU engineering programs. In 2010, another 350 students transferred. More impressively, more than 95 percent of junior-year and senior-year students who earn METS program scholarships are graduating. This is a higher retention and graduation rate than those for students entering ASU engineering programs as freshmen.
Overall, junior-year and senior-year engineering transfer students’ graduation rates are 70 percent for men and 60 percent for women. More than 50 percent of the METS transfer students who earned scholarships are now going on to graduate school full time for master’s or doctorate degrees – compared to just 20 percent of engineering transfer students nationwide.
The success of these ASU engineering transfer students is all the more impressive because the scholarship recipients have a lack of financial resources, so many of them also work jobs while attending school full time.
Targeting a talent pool
Success with upper-division transfer students predominantly from the local Maricopa County Community College District helped earn a grant of $2.5 million over five years from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2009 to expand the METS program efforts coordinated at ASU by engineering faculty members Mary Anderson-Rowland and Armando Rodriguez.
Anderson-Rowland, associate professor in the School for Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, is the leader of the METS expansion project funded by the NSF grant. Rodriguez, professor in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, is the co-leader.
The funding is through the NSF’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Talent Expansion Program (STEP), which aims to increase the ranks of young engineers and computer scientists to meet the nation’s growing needs for technological advancement and economic expansion. It’s enabling Anderson-Rowland and Rodriquez to reach beyond the community colleges in the greater Phoenix area and team with five community colleges in rural areas – Central Arizona, Western Arizona, Eastern Arizona, Cochise and Mohave colleges – to intensify recruitment of transfer students.
They’re targeting “a significant pool of untapped engineering talent” among community college students, Anderson-Rowland says.
The METS-STEP project goal is to develop a supply chain of high-quality engineering students through aiding the community colleges in their outreach to local high school students and by providing classroom materials, tutoring, speakers and tuition scholarships to cover costs of community college engineering courses.
In addition, the project includes “Be an Engineer” events on community college campuses for students and their parents, providing a contingent of experienced student mentors, and hosting ASU orientation programs specifically for transfer students.
Once at ASU, transfer students are supported by the METS Center, where they can study together and get mentoring and training in academic and career planning.
“Our mentors are faculty members and METS Center staff members who are supportive and empathetic,” Anderson-Rowland says. “And new transfer students will find other students to network with who understand the challenges that new students are facing.”
The NSF and ASU recruitment and retention efforts are important to help stem the drop in the number of United States citizens earning engineering degrees, she says.
METS-STEP also is expected to have a national impact by developing effective ways for other universities and community colleges to form partnerships to encourage students to pursue engineering careers and help them make the transition into university programs. The NSF grant also provides for several types of scholarships to help dozens of transfer students each year cover some of the costs of attending ASU.
With the METS-STEP program's emphasis on encouaging students to pursue opportunities for research experience and to consider graduate school, “We expect to help produce a significant and diverse pool of engineering talent to serve the nation’s needs,” Anderson-Rowland says.
The NSF’s support for ASU’s program has been spurred by a solid track record of recruiting and retention success, she says. Students can attest to her claim. Diana Sarmiento struggled when she first enrolled in community college several years ago. Her grades were so low that she dropped out.
She later started over at Estrella Mountain Community College, earned an associate’s degree in science and came to ASU with help from the METS program. Through METS she learned about time management that helped her cope with the challenges of university engineering studies – even while working jobs in addition to attending school full-time. METS workshops taught her how to effectively compose a resume and develop a portfolio displaying her skills.
“I got some really good advice that helped me get through,” she says.
Sarmiento went on to earn four internship positions – including experience as a research assistant – and work as a teaching assistant. She served as president of the ASU chapter of the Society of Hispanic and Professional Engineers and secretary of the ASU chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers. Sarmiento expects to graduate in 2011 with a degree in mechanical engineering. She’ll look for a job in industry after graduation but plans to eventually earn a master’s of business administration degree.
Steps to success
Mara Ramos has a similar story. She went to ASU right after high school but found she wasn’t ready for the university environment. She dropped out.
After becoming a single mother and a few false starts at other schools, Ramos began earning good grades at Mesa Community College that would make her eligible for support to return to ASU through the METS program.
Through the program she learned study techniques, was put under the wing of a supportive faculty mentor and participated in an undergraduate research program and research projects led by a faculty member. She learned “you don’t have to be genius to go to graduate school, just a hard worker.”
Today, Ramos is pursuing a doctorate in environmental engineering and hopes to help solve the world’s sanitation and water-quality problems.
Steve Blodgett went back to college in his mid-30s after a career as a photographer. He earned an associate’s degree in general studies at Mesa Community College, then came to ASU through the METS program after deciding to study chemical engineering.
He had earning only a bachelor’s degree in mind, but with Anderson-Rowland’s prodding he set his sights higher.
“I used the METS Center a lot. I learned study skills. I got advice and encouragement to seek support to go to grad school,” he says. “It had a big impact.”
Through internships and research experiences during his time at ASU, he says, “I realized that graduate school is really where I need to be” to have a career that will make an impact. Blodgett is now in a graduate program at the University of Michigan where he will do research in sustainable hydrogen production and other renewable energy resources.
Turning lives around
“It’s gratifying to be reaching young students who don’t have a lot of resources in their small communities to learn about science and engineering career opportunities,” says professor Rodriguez.
Rodriguez has been working for a decade to get support for outreach efforts, scholarships and grants to help students transfer to the university.
“When you show them you care, when you show them how to navigate their way in a big university, and give them tutoring and mentoring,” he says, “it’s amazing to see them turn into dedicated students who are taking their career goals seriously.”
The METS-STEP project also is helping get students connected to industry, which often leads to internship opportunities.
“Industry leaders want to cultivate a larger pool of engineers to hire, so companies have supported us,” Anderson-Rowland says.
She’s committed to keep the flow of transfer students running high.
“An engineering career was not even on the radar screen for a lot of these students when they were in high school,” she says, “and even when they’re in community college they don’t think they’re smart enough to get scholarships or go to a university. So it’s fulfilling to know you’re providing young people with options in their lives.”
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