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Following the success of academic “redshirting” -- derived from an athletic term for delaying participation to improve readiness -- at the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, other universities are adopting the model.

Boulder’s GoldShirt program, which began in 2009, identifies high school graduates who need time to catch up on math, science and humanities courses before proceeding to the full undergraduate engineering curriculum. As part of the five-year curriculum, students spend their first year with an eye toward preparation for the major before proceeding to the typical engineering courses.

Tanya Ennis, director of the program, said in an interview that the GoldShirt program promotes diversity and helps the engineering program admit some students it would otherwise have to reject. "We had students that were applying, but weren’t getting in," Ennis said. "There were a few people [who said] ‘What if we had a place to bring students in to develop them in the first year?’ kind of like the athletic redshirt program."

Students within the program take a combination of classes specifically for them and regular courses with students in the College of Engineering and Applied Science; Ennis noted that the program was "moving to more of a model where they’re included in [more] mainstream courses."

At the end of the fall semester, Ennis added, GoldShirt will see its first graduate, who will be finishing the program in only 4.5 years and graduating summa cum laude. Retention rates for those in the program are similar to those of the engineering college's other students.

GoldShirt's recruitment pool is drawn from unsuccessful applicants to the College of Engineering and Applied Science, through an interview process in collaboration with the admissions office. GoldShirt students are also awarded a renewable scholarship of $2,500 a year, designed to help offset the costs of an additional year of college. Ennis said that GoldShirt classes are typically around 32 students, and that "this year will be our largest class at 34."

With an eye on GoldShirt’s success, the University of Washington and Washington State University have announced that they will be collaborating on their own respective redshirting programs, both under the banner of the Washington State Academic RedShirts (STARS) in Engineering Program. STARS is funded by a National Science Foundation grant as part of an effort to increase retention rates within engineering and computer science programs. Eve Riskin, associate dean of engineering at the University of Washington, said that the program had a ready-made recruitment pool in the university’s Mathematics Academy. In this program, rising high school seniors live on campus for a month and receive intensive math instruction. Underrepresented minorities are specifically targeted for the program.

“We were thinking this one month would be enough and everyone would do well and live happily ever after but some students … have struggled,” Riskin said in an interview. “That’s why we wished we had more time … with the students.”

Part of the problem for low-income engineering majors, Riskin said, is that “[i]f you’re at an underserved high school, there’s a lot of focus on helping the kids graduate … you can get all As [at an underserved school] and then you come here and you’re in for a big shock.” This is particularly problematic for engineering, since “there’s a lot of emphasis placed in engineering on how they do in the first couple of quarters.” According to the American Society for Engineering Education, between 40 and 50 of engineering majors drop out or switch majors, and like Riskin, the ASEE’s research cites difficult curriculum as one of the most common reasons for this.

This “make-or-break” aspect of the first year of engineering is also the rationale for the extra year, Riskin said. “There’s always been this idea about the ‘weed-out’ courses,” she said. “People just assume that those define whether or not you can be an engineer based on your grade in there.”

As a result, Riskin said, many students who have great potential as engineers are overlooked. “If we find people from underserved backgrounds or challenging circumstances who succeeded despite their lack of privilege when we put them in an engineering context that supports them, they can go on and be fabulous engineers,” she said.

“The traditional stereotypical engineering image is not necessarily appealing to everybody, so what we do is… talk about [how] engineers are creative problem-solvers… they make a world of difference… and we know for a lot of our different populations, those messages resound with them,” Ennis said. “I think that brings in a whole different kind of student.”

Riskin said she hoped that underrepresented minority students would make up half of STARS enrollees. “We want students who are highly motivated, excited about engineering, who could just use that extra support,” she added.

“[Students] have totally bought into what it means to mentor and how to help students become more successful by learning from what their experiences have been,” Ennis said.

“I think [redshirting in engineering programs] has very high potential as it builds on a proven academic model and also incorporates psycho-social components that also have demonstrated effectiveness,” said Norman Fortenberry of the American Society for Engineering Education. “I think the model is broadly applicable beyond… where it currently exists.”


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