$5 Million NSF Award Will Strengthen Local Community College Pipeline to Cal Poly College of Engineering and Increase Student Diversity

University partners with Santa Maria’s Hancock College and SLO’s Cuesta College to provide scholarships to 100 transfer students planning to study engineering

SAN LUIS OBISPO — A $5 million National Science Foundation award will help increase diversity in engineering by strengthening the pipeline from two area community colleges to Cal Poly’s College of Engineering.

The NSF S-STEM ENGAGE grant will increase access to engineering careers for low-income, academically talented students with a demonstrated financial need.

ENGAGE, or Engineering Neighbors: Gaining Access, Growing Engineers, is a partnership between the university, Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria and Cuesta College that will launch with scholarships this fall. The three schools have collaborated on this grant for more than two years. At Cal Poly, ENGAGE is an initiative in the College of Engineering and the Center for Engineering, Science and Mathematics Engineering.

The NSF funding will provide two-year scholarships to 50 students at both Cuesta and Hancock Colleges. All students from the community college ENGAGE cohorts who transfer to the College of Engineering will be eligible for up to three additional years of scholarships — or up to $45,400 over five years at both two- and four-years schools.

“This award will help remove the financial barriers for some of our talented students,” said Amy S. Fleischer, dean of Cal Poly’s College of Engineering. “By providing opportunities for students from a wide variety of backgrounds to earn engineering degrees, this grant will help build the technical workforce that California needs.”

Robert Curry, associate superintendent and vice president of academic affairs at Allan Hancock, said the grant will help community college students further their education.

“This grant will expand opportunities for our engineering students,” he said. “Thanks to the NSF S-STEM ENGAGE grant, these students will receive additional support and resources to achieve their goal of attaining a four-year-degree and pursuing a career in engineering.”

In an effort to increase diversity and inclusion, the College of Engineering has strengthened the pipeline from community colleges, which tend to be more diverse. At Hancock, for example, more than half of students (55 percent) are Latinx, while at Cuesta, which is located several miles west of Cal Poly, about one in three (over 33 percent) are.

“To develop the details of the program, ENGAGE team members from Allan Hancock College, Cuesta College and Cal Poly utilized our shared hopes for low-income, academically talented students who begin their engineering path at community college and our shared analysis of barriers to success,” said Dominic Dal Bello, the Mathematical Sciences chair and an engineering instructor at Hancock.

In addition to offering scholarships, ENGAGE includes a research component, allowing the schools to advance understanding of the strategies that affect recruitment, retention, graduation and entry into the STEM workforce or graduate education.

“We have an opportunity to learn from ENGAGE about how to increase inclusivity and equity in engineering education and for California community college transfer students,” said Jane Lehr, principal investigator for the project, who is also a professor in Ethnic Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies and an Inclusive STEM Initiatives Fellow in the Cal Poly College of Engineering, College of Science and Mathematics and College of Liberal Arts in the 2019-20 academic year.

The community colleges have strong engineering programs, making the transition to Cal Poly smoother, said Jeff Jones, a Cuesta engineering instructor. Some Cuesta students also attend Cal Poly, he said, and most of the community college’s engineering faculty also teach or have taught at the university.

“This helps make the transition to the university easier since they will already know someone at Poly,” he said. “This also gives our students the knowledge of what caliber to expect when they transfer.”

Cuesta currently has 618 students who are seeking an associate’s degree in engineering and 241 pursuing a two-year degree in computer science. At Hancock College, 309 students have identified engineering as their major, and 207 computer science.  

There are many reasons students begin their studies at community colleges, including family responsibilities, financial factors and/or a need to strengthen their advanced math education.

“College education is a smart decision, and we meet our students where they are at,” said John Cascamo, Cuesta’s dean of Workforce and Economic Development. “Whether they are already college proficient or not, we can develop them in ways larger institutions aren’t always equipped. Cuesta has a comprehensive engineering program that prepares students for success, and this grant builds upon our strengths and increases the opportunities for our students.”

Transfer students accustomed to studying beside a larger percentage of underrepresented students might have difficulty adjusting to Cal Poly, said Hancock’s Dal Bello. But ENGAGE includes a plan to address possible feelings of isolation after they transfer to the less diverse Cal Poly. ENGAGE students and their mentors will participate in an assets-focused training titled Strengths Training from a Social Justice Perspective, which will include discussions on topics such as power, privilege, oppression and social identity, noting how those concepts operate and cause barriers to student success in college.

“In addition to creating more paths to Cal Poly, we also plan to retain and graduate students on time,” Fleischer said, noting that transfer students typically fare very well at Cal Poly. “The training and mentorship built into the award will help make ENGAGE students adjust and adapt easily to the demands at Cal Poly while also preparing them for challenges they might face after graduation.” 

Contact: Pat Pemberton
805-756-7402, 805-235-0555; ppembert@calpoly.edu

September 6, 2019

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