Student Services Office takes aim at student success
For engineering students, navigating the academic possibilities within their chosen course of study can be daunting, and engineering’s challenging curriculum may require a student’s full attention to the exclusion of necessary and timely choices along the way. Over the past four years, the MU College of Engineering’s Office of Student Services has assembled a suite of resources, a full court press of new and newly enhanced offerings, that take direct aim at student satisfaction, success and retention.
“It’s been a culture change that starts with Summer Welcome,” said Jill Ford, MU Engineering’s executive director of student programs. “We’re coming out with this full product that starts during students’ freshman year with enrollment management, FIGs, freshman enrichment and freshman job shadowing opportunities to solidify their decision about their emphasis.”
Success strategies begin for enrolling freshmen as they are integrated into the College’s newly initiated enrollment management program.
Launched for students enrolling for the 2014-2015 academic year, enrollment management requires that, except for the most gifted students, all who enroll will complete a core group of courses their first year as they receive an introduction and overview of the College’s nine majors. Upon completion of requirements, students will be evaluated for admittance into available degree programs. Students will navigate their first year working with a student services advising team.
High-achieving freshmen meeting prescribed criteria will be directly admitted into the major of their choice through an achievement program that includes access to scholarship funds, interaction with administrators and the opportunity to immediately begin working with a faculty member on undergraduate research, an option that eventually is available to all students if they meet the necessary criteria.
“Enrollment management is important in twofold,” explained Bob Tzou, associate dean for academic programs and the James C. Dowell Professor of Mechanical Engineering. “First, it assures each department in engineering has sufficient resources to ensure teaching and learning effectiveness in the full spectrum of our educational program, both of which are significantly affected by the class size and/or number of students. The maximum number of students allowed in each department depends on its capacity, particularly in the areas of lab equipment and facilities, which goes beyond the size of available classrooms.
“Second, enrollment management ensures students develop in-depth understanding of the various disciplines before they declare their majors. The possibilities within each department exceed what is reflected in the name of the department.”
Housing choice for success
One of the first choices incoming freshmen must make is where they will live, and statistics show that opting to be in one of MU’s Freshman Interest Groups, or FIGs, can be a beneficial choice. FIGs consist of a group of 15 to 20 students in the same major who live in the same dorm, take a core group of classes together and who also are involved in shared activities. Each FIG has an upper classman peer adviser who helps acclimate and integrate students into college life. A faculty adviser also is part of the program’s formula, which results in higher retention rates and higher mean GPAs, as well as higher levels of integration.
Chemical engineering senior Chelsea Pepmiller and computer science senior Daniel Silver both joined one of the College of Engineering’s 15 FIGS as freshmen and also eventually became peer advisers.
Pepmiller said that she had no idea what an engineer was before coming to MU, but her year in the Engineering Scholars FIG was “a window into the College of Engineering.”
“Calculus II Honors first semester was definitely a wake-up call. It was a difficult class but we worked on homework together,” said Pepmiller of one of the benefits of the program.
“You get to know people,” she added. “All the girls on the hall went to SWE [Society of Women Engineers] meetings together. I interviewed for student council with others from my FIG and we all went to E-Week [activities] together.
Silver explained that as a peer adviser, much of his time was spent on the one-hour course required of those in FIGS. “We had guest speakers from industry, we did team-building exercises and lessons on how to study.”
He said he also worked to make sure the students in his group were more involved socially. And, as upperclassman, he was able to help them make academic choices.
“Since I’ve been through every class, I could give the students in my FIG advice on what to take or not to take,” he said.
FIG students are required to complete four-year plans, compose resumes and attend at least one of the College’s two annual career fairs.
Pepmiller’s peer adviser was Julie Whitney, who earned her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in 2013. “As a woman in a FIG, it was beneficial to have a strong woman as a leader and mentor. She was such a great role model. I’ve stayed friends with her,” Pepmiller said of Whitney. “I also have a close friendship with one of my FIG students, Lisa Wilken, junior in computer engineering, from when I was a peer adviser. She told me that I am her mentor. She said she didn’t always like all of the things I made them do in class, but she said her four-year plan has made a difference.
“At the student awards banquet in March, eight or nine people who were in my FIG were recognized. We all went our own ways and did great things,” said Pepmiller.
Intervention, tutoring and building study skills
Not every freshman’s living situation comes with built-in study buddies, but the MU College of Engineering’s Freshman Enrichment Program offers tutoring in Pre-Calculus and Calculus I to all, in addition to academic monitoring and intervention through the Freshman Learning Center.
“Engineering is a highly demanding major where both theoretical and experiential requirements necessitate students have special assistance outside the classroom. Learning strategy plays an important role in assuring learning effectiveness,” said Tzou.
Working hand-in-hand with the MU Math Department, freshmen who receive less than a C on exams in these two courses are identified and required to meet with members of the Enrichment Program’s staff. Topics of discussion include study skills, time management, personal challenges and goal setting. They also must attend a one-hour weekly study session at the Freshman Learning Center.
“We hire high-achieving student tutors who also have a passion to serve as role models and mentors,” said Ford. “In a cohort model, these students can share what they have found to be successful. They also work to link students together in study groups.”
A partnership between MU Residential Life, the College of Engineering and the Chemistry Department launched in 2011, follows a Supplemental Instruction (SI) model pioneered at UMKC.
Talented undergraduates who excelled in Chemistry 1320 are trained as SI leaders. They attend the same sessions as students enrolled in the course and work with the course instructor to identify key messages. SI leaders hold regular, informal review sessions in residence halls, open to all students who want to increase their understanding of the material and their grades.
“This is a great example of a cooperative program between student affairs and academic units,” said Ford. “There is no separation between life and academics; it’s taking services right to where students live.”
This program, utilized by over one-third of engineering students, has been highly successful. Statistics show that students who attended a minimum of six sessions had significantly higher final scores. The average letter grade for students who attended six or more sessions was a B+, while those who did not attend averaged a B letter grade.
The College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources has since joined engineering in offering SI sessions, splitting the cost and sharing the student rewards.
“From there, students are funneled into the college’s PASS [Peer Assisted Study Session] Program,” said Ford of tutoring options.
PASS sessions are regularly scheduled tutoring sessions and are also available “on demand” for courses not covered by the program. Departmental specific offerings are advertised on the web and on posters distributed throughout the College.
Last year, the College of Engineering piloted an electronic adviser tool known as “Starfish,” that is being phased-in across campus as “MU Connect” by MU’s Office of Undergraduate Studies.
“Faculty and advisers have access to the system,” said Ford. “They can add and read notes that are put into the system, which helps with communication for those who have a role in guiding students. It’s been a real advantage to us to be able to shape this tool.”
Ford said that the early alert side of the system is especially exciting. Faculty can raise a flag in instances of low exam scores or low attendance and those working with students can follow up with intervention such as making referrals to PASS sessions.
“You can also put up kudos flags, which generate an email to the student that says, ‘You’re doing great,’” Ford said.
Students can see the courses they’re taking and also have access to a “success network” and their adviser’s schedule.
“Attendance problems are a level one alert, poor class performance a level two and a level three alert means they are in danger of failing,” said Ford. “Faculty can set up parameters about when they want to be contacted.”
Ford said the feedback loop between faculty and advisers is very helpful as faculty are able to see, for instance, if a student has come in to set up an action plan.
“College is a big transition; and we have a big job but it helps put students on a path to becoming adults,” Ford said.
The proactive approach is working for Ford and the Office of Student Services. The student retention rate from freshman to sophomore year was 83.7 percent in 2013, slightly above the entire campus rate of 83.5 percent. Overall, the state retention rate was 75.1 percent and the national rate was 78 percent. In 2011, the College of Engineering saw a nearly 90 percent retention rate.
The College’s six-year graduation rate for 2013 was 76.3 percent, only slightly lower than its all-time high of 76.7 percent in 2011. Campus’ six-year rate was 70 percent last year, and the national rate was 56.6 percent.
Professional development and engineering careers
Beginning their freshman year, students are encouraged to attend professional development workshops and attend biannual College career fairs where students can hook up with companies for internships while still in school. Workshops are on such topics as résumé writing and editing, social etiquette, personal finance planning and mock interviews.
“Career placement and the importance of internships related to a successful career are extremely important components outside the classroom in assuring student success,” said Tzou.
A job shadow opportunity is available for freshmen over spring break. In addition to giving them an early look at a real live engineer at work, it also gives them a chance to test their preconceptions about certain majors. This spring, 80 freshmen participated.
“It’s astounding to me how many resources are offered in the College of Engineering,” said freshman Mitchell Lotko, who job shadowed in March at EaglePicher Technologies, a battery company headquartered in Missouri.
“I met with three people in two different plants,” said Lotko. “They showed me all around and asked what I was interested in. I was favorably impressed.”
Lotko said that after seeing the basics of the company, he would consider working there.
“They made the batteries that powered Voyager [I and II, launched in 1977]. They [the batteries] have a 10-year life expectancy and they’re sill going today,” said Lotko.
Ford said that by the time students are sophomores, the College hopes they have a sense of belonging and they are thinking, “I am an engineer.” One of the ways Student Services promotes that is through an alumni mentoring program,” she said.
“We try to hook them up with someone who is a young professional through an application process so they can see the behavior modeled,” Ford said. More than 118 students applied to participate this year.
Matt Arri, the College’s director of career and professional development, implemented a “Four Year Career Plan” in 2013 to actively engage students to think about their futures as engineers beginning the first week they come in the door.
“You’ve got to be proactive,” Arri said. “Students need to start early in their academic journey on a career plan or their dreams can become nightmares. Start early. That’s my best advice for finding a good job.”
In 2012, Career Services recorded 728 contacts with students regarding résumé and cover letter reviews, job search assistance and mock interviews. In 2013, the number grew to 2,008 contacts.
“We work as career coaches,” Arri said. “We help students find their strengths and weaknesses, their passions and their dreams. We help them decide what it is they want to do.”