Over 80 percent of the students in the College of Engineering at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University are undergraduates, with hometowns located throughout the state of North Carolina, the nation, and the world. They also range from students whose families have earned degrees for generations to groundbreakers — first in their families to attend college and pursue careers as engineers or computer scientists.
As in all 15 Historically Black College and University Engineering Programs, North Carolina A&T works to provide a supportive environment with educational programs that close achievement gaps and boost opportunities for students from both low-income and high-income families.
For example, North Carolina A&T’s pre-college bridge program, Helping Orient Minorities to Engineering, or HOME, is designed to assist students in their academic, personal, and professional development with mentoring, seminars, and workshops that seek to retain engineering and computer science students.
A&T college sources say the HOME Program, which is funded by industry partners, nurtures a sense of community for its participants at a critical juncture in their lives, transitioning from high school to college.
Student organizations are also vital in helping provide a sense of community.
A&T’s College of Engineering has 24 groups, with much more throughout campus, giving students the ability to tailor their Achieving Great Goals in Everything or “Aggie” experience in a way that best matches their needs and extracurricular interests.
“We also work with students to make sure they don’t overload themselves,” says Dr. Felecia McInnis Nave, who is provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Prairie View A&M University.
“Even positive activities can become a distraction,” Dr. Nave adds.
“For example, they can be president of NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers), vice president of the American Civil Engineering Society, and engaged in student government associations, and before they know it, they’re struggling to find time to get on with their academic studies. So we work with them on balance, being a little more deliberate in activities they choose to better align with the career choices they’ll make for a corporate career.”
In addition to her provost’s job of working with academic deans, department heads, student services, counseling professionals, faculty, and staff to provide programs in and outside the classroom for undergraduate and graduate students, McInnis Nave is also a professor of chemical engineering at the Roy G. Perry College of Engineering and a member of the Texas A&M University System Graduate Faculty. Her research interests include recruitment, retention, and persistence of African-American and women students in STEM disciplines.
“Many of our students don’t have a historical context,” Dr. Nave says. “There’s no one in their family who has pursued an engineering degree,” she explains.
“For a number of our students, they are the first generation to go to college. So we try to provide the foundational knowledge to enlighten them on what their career options are. We expose them to internships and co-ops very early so that they can develop a better understanding of the profession and the theoretical and professional demands in a practical setting.”
According to the College Board, first-generation students can come from families with low incomes or from middle- or higher-income families without a college-going tradition. Some have parents that support their plans for higher education; others are under family pressure to enter the workforce right after high school.
These students may come from families that speak languages other than English at home or cultures outside the United States with different education systems, the Board notes.
The best college-ready education programs across the country aim to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared to succeed.
“Many students are coming to us not having the necessary math preparation that we look for in degree programs, particularly in engineering,” notes Dr. Nave.
“So we had to come up with very specific strategies in order to address some of the deficiencies to help them level for retention. We have had, for a long period of time, various summer programs, where students come in the summer prior to their freshman year.
“We engage them in math, chemistry, physics, biology-science preparation. So once they start their degree program, they’re better prepared to be successful in their classes. Additionally, we’ve opened up courses at the college level to provide the tutoring, supplementary stuff, and mentoring in order to help students be more successful in their courses.”
Study habits also require some work, Dr. Nave says.
“They’re not always attuned to the demand or what we expect of that type of academic program. We work with students on study skills and soft skills so they know how to communicate and how to present themselves and balance the support that they need.”
Four years ago, Laura Perna, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, found that students across America are working more and juggling a multitude of roles, creating anxiety and lowering graduation rates.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007 nearly half (45 percent) of “traditional” undergraduates—that is, students between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four attending college full time—worked while enrolled.
About 80 percent of traditional-age undergraduates attending college part time worked while enrolled. Today nearly one in ten (8 percent) full-time, traditional-age undergraduates is employed at least thirty-five hours per week, Perna observed.
Most college students are now not only employed but also working a substantial number of hours.
“Working more than 20 hours a week will have an impact on your courses,” Dr. Nave says. “So we try to create opportunities on campus where they can earn money to pay for their college education.”
At Prairie View, jobs are available in the library, student-athlete offices and campus recreation, bookstores, Centers and Institutes, computer labs, student centers, university dining, and undergraduate research.
Undergraduate students also gain experience by engaging in projects such as establishing an identity theory framework, exploiting Web IDs for multiple identities, mitigating biometric-based replay attacks, identifying web clients through behavior characterization, and detecting cyber threats by matching patterns of user behavior.
Research shows increased academic success for students working on rather than off campus.
The Computer Science department recently received $1.6 million to expand enrollment in its master’s and doctoral programs as part of a federal Cyber Security Workforce Pipeline Consortium. The U.S. Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration sponsor the five-year program.
Under a U.S. Department of Education grant, Dr. Stephanie Luster-Teasley, who has a joint appointment in civil engineering and chemical engineering at A&T, leads a project funded by the U.S. Department of Education called “Engaging the Next Generation of African-American Graduates Entering Biomedical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering Careers,” or Engage2BE.
Engage2BE is a mentoring program designed to increase the number of underrepresented students that graduate with STEM undergraduate degrees.
The program provides support for underserved students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and students with children.
Engage2BE’s academic mentoring, motivation, and advisement are important in eliminating the feeling of isolation many students experience.
Prairie View’s Dr. Nave has received over $3 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Defense, ExxonMobil, Society of Women Engineers, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Engineering Information Foundation, and PVAMU Research Foundation to advance her technical and education-related research agenda.
She has invested in K-12 Outreach, serving as the summer programs coordinator for the Roy G. Perry College of Engineering in 2009, the program coordinator for the STEM-Prep Enrichment Camp in 2006-2008 and program coordinator for the Minority Introduction to Technology and Engineering in 2003-2006.
A&T’s engineering undergraduates engage in technical challenges, competitions, international travel, and internships.
Additionally, the College has also embarked on a path for equipping undergraduates to address the technical challenges of the future by intensifying their exposure to innovation and entrepreneurship opportunities.
To achieve this, the college has joined the NSF-sponsored Pathways to Innovation program led by Stanford University.
Through this program, A&T is part of a cohort of engineering colleges across the country that are focused on providing students with curricular and extra-curricular experiences designed to bring their innovation skills to the forefront.
In conjunction with this effort, Dr. Robin Coger, dean of the College of Engineering A&T, has committed, along with over 120 other engineering deans across the nation, to producing a cadre of undergraduate engineers each year with demonstrable evidence of experience in five areas necessary for the engineering workforce of the United States to create solutions to the complex technical challenges — like the list of “grand engineering challenges” identified by the National Academy of Engineers.
The five areas that must be demonstrated by each potential Grand Challenge Engineer in their portfolio of experiences are: research or design projects connected to the Grand Engineering Challenges: Real-world, interdisciplinary experiential learning, entrepreneurship and innovation experience, global and cross-cultural perspectives, and service learning.
The first cohort of engineering undergraduate Grand Challenge Engineers will be evaluated and honored in accordance with the national model during the current spring 2015 semester.