Cal Poly’s materials engineering department has received a $1 million grant to redesign the curriculum and teaching methods in order to attract and retain women and minority engineering students.

The grant was awarded by the National Science Foundation. Though the grant awarded by the NSF is very competitive, Cal Poly was chosen for its program’s potential to have a positive impact on the community.

Ruth Borrud, a materials engineering junior, said, “There’s not so many (women) in my classes. I’m in Materials Engineering 101 and there’s like four or five girls in a class of 40.”

When first hearing about the grant Borrud said, “I don’t know how they will change (the curriculum) but hopefully it won’t add on another couple of quarters for me when they change it. As far as getting more women, it should make us aware that it is a job choice for us.”

“I wouldn’t say that attracting and retaining (women and minority students) is a problem only for the materials engineering department, but for all engineering, with the exception of biomedical engineering, where the number of women students is increasing,” said Linda Vanasupa, materials engineering chair.

The grant will fund a complete transformation of the department, including its teaching methods and philosophy. Eighty percent of the materials engineering courses will be changed.

“We are not simply changing curriculum, but changing everything about the culture of learning,” Vanasupa said.

An important goal of the program will be to make sure that students realize the difference their efforts can make in the community.

Changes will be made in order to foster closer relationships between teachers and students. Teachers will adopt more of a coaching position, where they will help students solve problems, instead of lecturing to the class. Students will also learn in peer groups where they can offer mutual support while learning. This is especially important during the freshman and sophomore years when students are most likely to drop out of engineering programs.

The new program will also require students to participate in service learning, where they will help the community with engineering problems, Vanasupa said.

“The service learning component of the curriculum is key because it gives students a chance to see how their engineering skills and problem-solving abilities can help people in need,” she said.

The grant also requires that Cal Poly provide pre-college tutorials in math and engineering to at risk high school students. This works like a subscription where schools will receive computer programs that will monitor and prepare students math and science skills.

Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, National Instruments, Texas Instruments and the Semiconductor Industry Association have expressed interest in working with the service-learning portion of the curriculum.

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