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Pipeline to Cal Poly Engineering

A $5 million award from the National Science Foundation will help increase diversity in engineering by strengthening the pipeline from two local community colleges to Cal Poly’s College of Engineering.

The NSF S-STEM ENGAGE grant is structured to increase access to engineering careers for low-income, academically talented students with a demonstrated financial need. ENGAGE, an acronym for “Engineering Neighbors: Gaining Access, Growing Engineers,” results from a partnership between Cal Poly, Allan Hancock College and Cuesta College and will launch with scholarships this fall. The three schools collaborated on this grant application for more than two years. At Cal Poly, ENGAGE is an initiative in the College of Engineering and the Center for Engineering, Science & Mathematics Engineering (CESAME).

The NSF funding will provide 2-year scholarships to 50 students at Cuesta College and at Allan Hancock College (100 students total). All students from the Allan Hancock and Cuesta ENGAGE cohorts who transfer to Cal Poly’s College of Engineering are then eligible for up to three additional years of scholarship support.  Individual students may be awarded up to $45,400 over a 5-year period.

“This award will help remove the financial barriers for some of our talented students,” said Amy S. Fleischer, dean of Cal Poly’s College of Engineering. “By providing opportunities for students from a wide variety of backgrounds to earn engineering degrees, this grant will help build the technical workforce that California needs.”

Robert Curry, associate superintendent and vice president of academic affairs at Allan Hancock, said the grant will help community college students further their education.

“Hancock is very excited to be a part of this grant, which will expand opportunities for our engineering students,” he said. “Thanks to the NSF S-STEM ENGAGE grant, these students will receive additional support and resources to achieve their goal of attaining a four-year-degree and pursuing a career in engineering.”

As part of its efforts to increase diversity and inclusion, Cal Poly’s College of Engineering has worked to strengthen the pipeline from community colleges, which tend to be more diverse. At Allan Hancock, for example, over 55 percent of students are Latinx as are over 33 percent of students at Cuesta.

“To develop the details of the program, ENGAGE team members from Allan Hancock College, Cuesta College and Cal Poly utilized our shared hopes for low-income, academically talented students who begin their engineering path at community college and our shared analysis of barriers to success,” said Dominic Dal Bello, engineering professor and Mathematical Sciences chair at Allan Hancock College.

In addition to offering scholarships, ENGAGE includes a research component, allowing the schools to advance understanding of the strategies that affect recruitment, retention, graduation, and entry into the STEM workforce or graduate education.

“We have an opportunity to learn from ENGAGE about how to increase inclusivity and equity in engineering education and for California community college transfer students,” said Jane Lehr, the multi-institutional consortia principal investigator (PI) for the project, who is also a professor in Ethnic Studies and Women’s & Gender Studies and an Inclusive STEM Initiatives Fellow in the Cal Poly College of Engineering, College of Science and Mathematics, and College of Liberal Arts in 2019-20.

The community colleges have strong engineering programs, making the transition to Cal Poly smoother, said Jeff Jones, an engineering professor at Cuesta College. Some Cuesta students are concurrent Cal Poly students, he said, and most Cuesta engineering faculty also teach or have taught at Cal Poly.

“This helps make the transition to the university easier since they will already know someone at Poly,” he said. “And this also gives our students the knowledge of what caliber to expect when they transfer.”

Cuesta College currently has 618 students who have indicated they are seeking an associate’s degree in engineering and 241 pursuing an A.S. in computer science. At Allan Hancock College, 309 students have identified engineering as their major, and 207 computer science.  

There are many reasons students begin their studies at community colleges, including family responsibilities, financial factors, and/or a need to strengthen their advanced math education.

“College education is a smart decision, and we meet our students where they are at,” said John Cascamo, dean of Workforce & Economic Development at Cuesta College.  ”Whether they are already college proficient or not, we can develop them in ways larger institutions aren’t always equipped. Cuesta has a comprehensive engineering programs that prepares students for success; this grant builds upon our strengths and increases the opportunities for our students.”

Transfer students accustomed to studying beside a larger percentage of underrepresented students might have difficulty adjusting, said Dal Bello, from Hancock. But ENGAGE includes a plan to address possible feelings of isolation after they transfer to the less diverse Cal Poly. ENGAGE students and their mentors will participate in an assets-focused training titled Strengths Training from a Social Justice Perspective, which will include discussions on topics such as power, privilege, oppression and social identity, noting how those concepts operate and cause barriers to student success in higher education.

“In addition to creating more paths to Cal Poly, we also plan to retain and graduate students on time,” Fleischer said, noting that transfer students typically fare very well at Cal Poly. “The training and mentorship built into the award will help make ENGAGE students adjust and adapt easily to the demands at Cal Poly while also preparing them for challenges they might face after graduation.”

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