April 16, 2012

ESA students work on a challenging mathematical problem in lab.

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Jaime Vasquez was just 8 years old when his family moved from El Salvador to Boston in 2000, but he recalls vividly the stark contrast in the condition of the buildings and roads.

"I didn't know what civil engineering was, but I was always interested in buildings and structures," said Vasquez, who grew up in a single-room house with a dirt floor in the rural town of La Reina. "It is a long-term goal of mine to return and improve infrastructure in the area where I lived."

It wasn't until his senior year of high school, however, that Vasquez began to consider engineering as a career. "They didn't focus on talking about career paths in my school," he explained. "You kind of had to seek it out yourself."

Now a second-year civil engineering major at Bucknell University, Vasquez is among nine sophomores and 13 first-year students who are part of the Engineering Success Alliance (ESA), a program designed to increase diversity and success rates among engineering majors who come from under-resourced high schools. The program, which began in 2010, provides students with academic resources, peer support and opportunities for networking and internships so they are more likely to graduate with engineering degrees.

Increasing diversity, success
Through individual tutoring and group study, ESA students gain the quantitative problem solving skills that are the foundation for success in engineering courses, said Keith Buffinton, dean of the College of Engineering. The students also have the opportunity to network with an advisory panel that includes University President John Bravman and Bucknell alumni who work at prominent engineering firms.

"We want to take them from surviving to thriving," Buffinton said. "These are students who have met our admissions criteria, but because of their background in under-resourced schools or as first-generation college students, they need this attention more than most."

Five-year commitment
George Pierson, a Class of 1984 alumnus and president and CEO of the international engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc., was instrumental in bringing ESA to Bucknell. The company has pledged $250,000 to support the program for five years. The University has committed to raising an additional $1 million to sustain the program indefinitely and is more than halfway to that goal.

The ESA program not only benefits students but contributes to a national effort to enhance and diversify the engineering workforce, Pierson said. President Barack Obama has established a goal for the United States to graduate an additional 10,000 engineers each year to meet industry demands. In addition, minorities are underrepresented in the profession. To remain competitive, engineering programs must draw students from varying backgrounds and prepare them for jobs in technical fields.

"If you look at the numbers, while there is a tremendous focus on getting minority students interested and admitted to engineering programs, there isn't an effort to keep them in the programs," Pierson said. "In fact, minority students are about four times as likely to drop out of engineering programs. Getting them there is only half the battle."

Building a strong foundation
Students who are unable to master mathematics early on are unlikely to thrive as engineering majors, Pierson said.

"It's not that they aren't capable, but they don't have as strong a base," he said. "We find if you give them the support they need in the first couple of years, they'll do fine the rest of the way."

Karen Marosi, associate dean for the College of Engineering, noted that ESA helps "remove barriers" that may interfere with students' success.

"It's not a remedial program. It's an empowerment program," she said. "Not only are the students getting tutoring help, they're connecting with people who could change their worlds. The advisory panel is a particularly important component. The students recognize in those people the potential for their future careers."

Buffinton said he hopes the ESA will help make Bucknell a "school of choice" for a more diverse group of engineers. "We want them to know they will get the support they need, make the connections they need to make, graduate and be able to pursue the careers they want to pursue in engineering."

Tackling problems together
At least once a week, students in the program work on challenge problems that support what they're learning in their classes.

"The biggest thing the students get from the program is confidence," said ESA Director Barbra Steinhurst. "Some of that is coming from the math lab and certainly with interactions with the advisory board. The persistence also comes from knowing someone is watching out for them."

Vasquez, who was awarded a scholarship to come to Bucknell through the Posse Foundation, said ESA has prepared him for more advanced classes at Bucknell and made him realize the importance of setting an example for others, including his two brothers who now are considering college. Vasquez is the first in his family to enroll in college.

"I want to get a degree to make a difference, and I also want to set an example for others like me," he said. "The second goal has risen in importance in the last two years."

A hand up
Juan Rivas, a first-year electrical engineering major from Houston, said he was determined to be an engineer, but ESA has helped him solidify skills he needs to succeed. "In math lab, we work on challenging problems that are applicable in my engineering labs."

Jasmine Joyner, a first-year biomedical engineering major from Dublin, Pa., said the extra practice and support helps her keep pace with her classes.

"I want to be an engineer because I want to make a difference in the world," she said. "Sometimes, when I am in class, I think, 'I can't do this.' But I can't be an engineer if I can't do it. Here, we know that we're not alone, and we can get help."

This summer, with help from the Zolla Family Foundation, the program will be expanded so that incoming ESA students will start getting support before the academic year starts.

"The idea is to have an intense period of time to assess their academic readiness and increase their comfort level at Bucknell," Marosi said. "We can make sure from Day 1 of classes that they have the resources they need."

Contact: Division of Communications