NSF Funds New UCI Program Addressing Disparities in STEM Majors

UCI partners with community colleges to improve transfer process and retention                                                                             

UC Irvine has partnered with three community colleges (Irvine Valley College, Santa Ana College and Saddleback College) to improve the recruitment and retention of  women and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors. With a $1.8 million, three-year National Science Foundation grant, UCI has created a program called iStart (Innovate from the Start: Engaging Engineering and Computer Science Undergraduates).

According to the NSF 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators report, women and minorities – Black, Hispanic and Native Americans – are still underrepresented in STEM fields compared to the population at large. The report indicates women comprise only 13% of all engineers and just 25% of computer and mathematical scientists; while minority women comprise fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers.

Led by UCI’s The Henry Samueli School of Engineering, the iStart program aims to address this challenge by improving the transfer process for community college students, providing a more compelling and inclusive first-year experience by introducing design concepts earlier in the curriculum; and strengthening student opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Studies tell us that hands-on engineering projects and demonstrations applying core engineering principles increase retention in an unprecedented manner,” says Gregory Washington, dean of the Samueli School and principal investigator for the grant.

The iStart program takes a three-pronged approach to increasing the number of students, especially those from underrepresented groups, who earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science.

Building a Community College Pipeline

The Samueli School of Engineering, the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, and the Department of Mathematics will collaborate with the three community colleges to ensure that transfer students enter UCI prepared to take junior level coursework upon enrollment. To prevent gaps in critical courses that often delay transfer students from progressing toward graduation, UCI will offer summer bridge programs for transfer students and help the community colleges develop more compatible introductory engineering and computer science courses.

First-year Experience Motivates Students to Stay

The Samueli School and the Bren School will increase their emphasis on design projects in freshman courses as a way to inspire and retain incoming students. “Using technologies in novel and innovative ways can significantly motivate students to learn STEM concepts,” explains Washington. “Through project-based or experiential learning, we are able to make a clear connection between the mathematics taught in the classroom and real-life engineering and computer science problems.”

An Innovation Ecosystem that Encourages Entrepreneurship

The Samueli School will open a fully equipped rapid design, innovation and prototyping facility called FabWorks. The workshop area will feature digital fabrication systems, technical resources and provide open studio space for students to design and build things. FabWorks will serve as a state-of-the-art lab where students collaborate on various projects.

In addition to Washington, others on the grant are computer science professors Amelia C. Regan and Debra J. Richardson, and mathematics lecturer Alessandra Pantano.