272542 Student Recruitment and Community Outreach Through an Undergraduate Mentoring Program
Community outreach programs are vital promoters of growth in any chemical engineering department. Students in K-12 classrooms often have little to no experience with engineering and are unaware of the various types of career paths available to them through higher education, particularly the path of chemical engineering. Community outreach is also an important portion of the societal mission of a university and it contributes greatly to the general public’s understanding of the role of various professions in society. We have developed an efficient and effective model for a student-managed outreach program. Through this program we have been able to connect with many of our local high schools and spark interest in engineering for a great number of students, setting them on rewarding career paths of which they had been previously unaware.
Our department employs a team of undergraduate Chemical Engineering students. These students travel in groups of three to high schools around the state and engage K-12 classrooms in an active learning environment. To create community connections we use a range of contact methods, and offer a simple internet form to allow K-12 teachers to request visits, clarify their curricular needs, and request specific demonstrations and activities.
At class visits our teams cover an introduction to engineering and then, more specifically, chemical engineering. Included with the introduction, the team members discuss the wide variety of possible career paths open to chemical engineers, along with the notable benefits of becoming an engineer. Afterwards, we conduct interactive demonstrations, using developed teaching modules and small experimental apparatuses. In an effort to make our outreach program more effective, our team has prepared and documented over 30 teaching modules that illustrate fundamental principles of core chemical engineering courses such as fluid dynamics, heat transfer, separations, thermodynamics, and process control.
This program has developed course segments of various lengths, which are directly related to a teacher’s lesson plan and other pedagogical needs. One example of an in depth outreach activity, is a two week introduction to chemical engineering segment taught in a local high school’s nascent Introduction to Engineering course. In this course students were presented with a wide range of chemical engineering concepts though the design and assembly of their own photobioreactors. During the periods in which students were waiting for their algae to grow, they created biodiesel from vegetable oil via trans-esterification, and they were able to compare the energy released by the regular oil and their diesel. These in-depth outreach experiences gave students a grounded example of process design, as well providing them an example of product engineering, and resulted in significant interest in our department.
Over this college-wide program’s four years of existence we have gone from 389 high-school students visited in the 2007-2008 academic year to 3381 students in 2010-2011, and we are poised to significantly surpass that level by 2012. Through this program, we have also conducted a camp each summer, accommodating approximately 20 high-school students through a weeklong experience with a variety of engineering fields.
It is difficult to quantify the exact effect of such a program. However, we have seen a dramatic influx of students into our department; enrollment is up nearly 50% over the outreach program’s existence. Furthermore, the attrition rate of undergraduate outreach students participating in the program is zero, compared to 40% for our typical undergraduate, indicating that involvement in such an outreach program may aid in student retention. An increase in high school student interns to our program has also been observed as a direct result of our outreach visits. Currently we have four high school interns working with our outreach teams and laboratories in our department, and the quality of students directly attracted through this program has been abnormally high; our first intern has recently received full scholarships to several universities. Overall, this community outreach program and its structure seem to be an excellent catalyst for attracting quality students to chemical engineering and creating a healthy and robust connection to our surrounding community.