Minority Engineering Program Continues National Successes

Published: March 15, 1998

The rate of minority engineering freshmen at the University of Colorado at Boulder returning for their sophomore year reached an all-time high of 87 percent in fall 1997, nearly double the national average.

CU's return rate is believed to be among the highest in the nation for minority engineering, said Germán R. Núñez G., director of the Minority Engineering Program. A total of 170 underrepresented minorities, including Hispanics, African Americans and American Indians, enrolled in fall 1997 in CU’s MEP program, which began in the College of Engineering and Applied Science in 1973 with just six students.

Increasing minority enrollment and retaining students through graduation are considered two benchmarks of success for such programs, said Núñez. In recent years, the grade-point average of the freshman MEP class has been comparable, and at times even exceeded, that of the overall freshman engineering class.

Over the past eight years, the freshman to sophomore return rate for MEP students has averaged 75 percent, Núñez said. Since 1986, about 90 percent of graduating MEP students have been placed in jobs in academia and industry.

“We have a high quality, unique product, and I measure the success of MEP by the number of products on our shelf,” he said. “Since we cannot produce enough minority engineers to meet the demand in the workplace, our MEP ‘shelf’ is pretty empty following the graduation of our students, an indication of our strength.”

Components of CU-Boulder’s MEP program include academic excellence workshops for freshmen two nights a week in calculus, chemistry and physics, said Núñez. These twice-a-week, extra workshops allow students to work together in small groups with facilitators to solve challenging math and science problems.

In 1997, funding provided by the Colorado Alliance for Minority Participation through the National Science Foundation allowed Núñez to expand the evening workshops to include computer programming, circuits, linear algebra and differential equations, physics II and calculus II.

MEP students also are clustered together in common classes to encourage collaboration and help them overcome ethnic isolation. The program also features a resource center open 24 hours a day equipped with computers, printers, copiers, a small library and a stereo system, allowing students to study, network and socialize.

In addition, the Summer Bridge Program gives incoming MEP freshmen a “jump-start” in their first-year math and science courses, said Núñez. The program has grown into a five-week, “academic boot-camp” in calculus, chemistry, physics and computer programming along with labs, field trips and group projects.

“We want to give these students the chance to create social and academic networks of support during their years at CU-Boulder,” he said. “The result is the production of highly qualified engineers who can work in the global marketplace.”

MEP freshmen also attend a leadership class that features academic skill-building, career awareness and self-management tools. The class features a number of guest lecturers, industry field trips along the Front Range and outreach trips by the MEP students to various Denver-Boulder area high schools.

MEP funded more than $100,000 worth of scholarships in 1996-97, averaging $1,000 per student per year, Núñez said. The scholarships are funded primarily by corporate and personal donors and through the engineering college’s James Cole Scholarship Fund. The freshman MEP class in fall 1997 totaled 50 students, a 60 percent increase over 1996.

New programs in 1997 included the Summer Engineering Experience, which includes student visits to area engineering firms, a 10-week training course for several students at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, and a three-day, hands-on Exploring Engineering Institute for 30 teachers from K-12 schools in Colorado at the college’s new $11 million Integrated Teaching and Learning Laboratory.

Ray Landis, dean of Engineering and Technology at California State University, Los Angeles, who is considered the architect of the “community building model” used by MEP programs at CU and across the country, said CU-Boulder’s MEP “clearly has been one of the finest programs in the nation.”

“Success in college correlates with the learning environment, not the ability of the students,” Landis said. “In the past, many administrators took the approach that they needed to address minority student deficiencies. My approach has always been that there is nothing wrong with the students, but there is something wrong with the institution if it is not meeting the needs of these students.”