As part of an effort aimed at increasing the number of engineering graduates in the United States, which is experiencing a significant decline in new engineers, the National Science Foundation (NSF) Science and Technology Expansion Program has awarded a $2 million, five-year grant to the Virginia Tech College of Engineering to expand its undergraduate mentoring and retention programs.

Target students for the project will be engineering freshmen and transfer students, said Bevlee Watford, the College of Engineering's associate dean for academic affairs and director of the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity.

"The freshman-to-sophomore transition is critical," said Watford, who is co-principal investigator for the NSF grant. "The majority of drop-outs among engineering undergraduates occur at this stage, but most students who make a successful transition to sophomore year will graduate."

Watford and Jean Kampe of the Virginia Tech Department of Engineering Education will oversee three new programs to be funded by the NSF grant. All three are based on existing programs, developed over the years by Watford and her staff, that in the past have helped improve retention and graduation rates for under-represented engineering students.

The Student Transition Program will offer mentoring and academic development to 100 incoming freshmen for five weeks during the summer before they enter Virginia Tech. Faculty from the engineering education, chemistry, and mathematics departments will teach introductory courses and upper-class students will provide mentoring on academic skills and university life.

Academic Hispanic OutReach Alliance (AHORA), Black Engineering Support Teams (BEST) and Women in Engineering Support Teams (WEST) — three existing programs originally developed for under-represented engineering students at Virginia Tech — will be expanded to assist 400 freshmen and 60 transfer students, most of whom come to the university from community colleges. Upper-class mentors will help the freshmen and transfer students learn how to cope and succeed during their first semester in engineering.

The third program, "Galileo," will offer a residential learning environment to 200 freshmen male students during their first semester. Galileo is based on Hypatia — the College of Engineering's residential program for first-year women in engineering, Watford said. Galileo will be a collaborative effort of engineering, other academic departments including chemistry and mathematics, and the university's Housing and Dining Services.

In addition, the engineering college will continue to offer numerous existing mentoring, tutoring, academic enrichment, and scholarship programs through the Academic Affairs Office and Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity.

Currently, Watford said, the Virginia Tech College of Engineering's retention rate for undergraduate students through graduation is 52 percent. Watford and Kampe have high expectations for the new NSF-funded programs — their ultimate goal is to increase freshman and transfer student retention into the second year to 85 percent.

"This should translate into about 300 more Virginia Tech engineering graduates annually," Watford said.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 5,600 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology.

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become among the largest universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech's eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.


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