New summer program gives rising engineering sophomores a jump start

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- As undergraduate enrollment in Penn State's College of Engineering continues to increase, finding ways to keep students in the engineering program becomes even more challenging. Jump Start, a new four-week summer program for rising sophomores in the college, aims to increase retention rates by providing students with academic and social resources and support.

"The college's retention data shows we have some work to do," said Amy Freeman, assistant dean of engineering outreach and inclusion in the college. "Only 59 percent of students who start as engineering majors complete all four years of their studies at University Park and graduate with an engineering degree. (Many do go on to other majors.) That statistic is typically lower for the 2+2 program students — those who transfer to University Park after two years at a Commonwealth Campus. One of the reasons is that there are fewer resources designed to assist these students in making the transition and building a strong learning community once they arrive at University Park. In the College of Engineering, we are trying to change this by helping students build this community before they arrive."

Organized by the Center for Engineering Outreach and Inclusion, Jump Start was held May 15 to June 9 at the University Park campus. Participants included 46 engineering students — eight from University Park and 38 from 13 Commonwealth Campuses.

Academically, the program offered classes, facilitation sessions, and study groups for students who are preparing to take math and physics entrance-to-major courses. Although Jump Start students didn’t earn credits, the hope was that by getting an in-depth preview of the material, the students will apply what they learned and do well when they take those same courses for credit, said Helen Edson, director of campus outreach in the Center for Engineering Outreach and Inclusion.

The program also included educational workshops led by Penn State alumni Anthony Davis of General Motors and Ashley Churilla from Accenture. Davis, who earned his bachelor's degree in aerospace engineering in 2008 and master of engineering management in 2014, networked with students at the MorningStar Solar Home and shared tips for academic success. Churilla, who earned her bachelor's degrees in computer science and math in 2006, discussed personality styles in the workplace.

Additionally, guest speakers from the college and the University shared information about research experiences for undergraduates, housing availability for engineering students who transfer from a Commonwealth Campus to University Park, navigating the entrance-to-major process, and how to "study smarter, not harder."

While struggling academically can be a challenge for some Commonwealth Campus engineering students, Edson noted that many have a difficult time integrating with University Park students once they transfer. She and Jamie Weaver, program coordinator of campus outreach in the Center for Engineering Outreach and Inclusion, said it was important to help foster rapport among the students by carving out time for social activities, including a trip to Knoebels Amusement Park, a hike on Mount Nittany, and a Hiawatha dinner cruise.

"We already see bonds forming," said Edson. "We hope these connections help ease the social barriers when the students move to University Park their junior year."

It will be at least three years before an assessment can be made about the role, if any, that Jump Start plays in increasing student retention in the College of Engineering. In the meantime, Edson said she is happy that the college is offering a special program for a student population that sometimes gets overlooked.

"We hear a lot about the resources available for first-year engineering students," she said. "However, we don't hear much about what is in place for sophomores. We hope this program turns out to be a positive experience for them academically and socially."

Jump Start was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Accenture, and the Penn State College of Engineering. Students who would like more information about the program can contact Edson at hedson@engr.psu.edu or 814-863-1080.

—Stefanie Tomlinson