Engineering a student community

To make sure talented students continue to thrive in their first two years after they leave high school, the College of Science and Engineering is building a network for success with help from donors.

Despite today's headlines about the sluggish job market, career prospects in science and engineering are looking up. Way up. Demand is on the rise for scientists and engineers with the vision and know-how to tackle 21st century issues, like designing sustainable cities, harnessing renewable energy, protecting natural resources and improving human health. In biomedical engineering alone, employment opportunities are expected to increase by 72 percent over the next decade.

But the academic path to prepare for these highly skilled professions is demanding and rigorous, especially for incoming freshmen who are just embarking on the journey. A quantum leap from high school, the transition to college-level coursework poses academic and personal challenges, even for top scholars. To make it through, students need help focusing on both short- and longer-term goals.

With the help of 3M and other generous donors, the College of Science and Engineering (CSE) is building innovative support programs that help students manage the critical first two years, when immersion in math, chemistry and physics form the foundation for success in everything that follows. The goal is to ensure that freshmen and sophomores in science and engineering continue to look up, even as they work hard and keep their heads down.

The First Year Experience

Students in Taylor Center photo - 300

“Our engineering program is very demanding, and it’s not unusual for students who were at the top of their high school class to discover that they need a different set of tools to succeed in college,” said Paul Strykowski, CSE associate dean for undergraduate programs. “They quickly see that it’s not enough to simply attend lectures and study alone in their dorm rooms. The first two years of classes are very tough, and we want students to widen their range of experiences and keep the larger picture in mind.” 

Financial support from 3M helped CSE launch the First Year Experience, a program that provides new undergrads with opportunities to build a sense of community and focus through structured activities and increased advising support. This successful program, which has raised freshman retention rates to an impressive 95 percent, empowers students to build bridges with their peers, their professors, the larger University community and the professional world. “We know that our students are bright, enthusiastic and thoughtful,” said Ken Leopold, CSE professor of chemistry and one of the program’s faculty architects. “But it's easy to get overwhelmed early on. We want to help them through that and come out successfully on the other side.”

"The first two years of classes are very tough, and we want students to widen their range of experiences and keep the larger picture in mind."

The First Year Experience offers students a wide range of ways to boost their academic performance by joining focused study groups, meeting with their professors, and plugging into workshops that offer tools like time management and effective study techniques. CSE has increased the number of academic advisors, developed leadership programs and created science and engineering floors in the dorms.

The program also offers help with choosing a major, plus career counseling and access to mentors and internships. “The First Year Experience sets you up for success,” said Kaitlin Thell, a civil engineering student. “I got help focusing my major on the environment, and found a great mentor who is showing me what qualities companies are looking for in job candidates. I'm also getting help with resume building and interview skills.”

Thell's mentor, 3M chemical engineer and technical manager Gina Buccellato, remembers what it was like when she was about to enter the workforce. "Mentoring is a good opportunity to share what it’s like in the real world," she said. “I can be a sounding board and offer tips, like how to make a good impression on a potential employer. But mentoring also gives me a chance to get to know people in the job market, whose skills may fit with a need at 3M.”

Another focus of the First Year Experience is connecting CSE students to the larger University community, making it easier for them to participate in campus life, from finding study abroad opportunities and research projects to volunteering for Lego League and Homecoming festivities. 

"There are so many ways for students to learn and grow at the U of M," Strykowski points out. "And we want to help them find activities that make their college experience richer and more rewarding."

A Home Base

Lind Hall photo - 300

CSE's goals for the First Year Experience align closely with their vision for a dynamic student center and home base for undergraduates, in which building a sense of community is key. Fundraising is currently under way for the renovation of Lind Hall to provide a focal point for CSE’s undergraduate activities.

The idea is to strengthen CSE's culture of collaboration to keep students motivated and on track, and to improve their access to academic support, study abroad opportunities, student organizations and career resources.

Thanks to gifts from 3M, Boston Scientific and many individual donors, CSE has raised approximately $3.6 million toward their goal of $6 million for the renovation of Lind Hall, which began in June 2011. Renovation is expected to be completed in early 2012.

"We've learned that that it's more successful when you surround the kids with experiences, with time, with talent, with mentoring, with opportunities, with advisors, as well as with funding." 

Donors like 3M have been critical partners in CSE’s commitment to improve student retention and ensure their success. “Our involvement is very high touch,” said Robin Torgerson, vice president of 3M community affairs and the 3M Foundation. "It's not just throwing some money over the wall. We've learned that that it's more successful when you surround the kids with experiences, with time, with talent, with mentoring, with opportunities, with advisors, as well as with funding."