‘Redshirting’ Programs Boost Engineering Readiness

December 2013

Communities: Education
‘Redshirting’ Programs Boost Engineering Readiness

As followers of college sports know, a college athlete who is not yet ready to play can “redshirt,” allowing them to practice with the team but not join games. Now the academic world is borrowing that model, with programs that give extra support to students not prepared to begin a rigorous engineering curriculum. Scaled up, the strategy could boost the number of engineering graduates.

The University of Colorado Boulder was the first to launch its program, in 2009, and this fall the first student is scheduled to graduate summa cum laude in civil engineering. According to program director Tanya Ennis, organizers decided to rename the effort the Goldshirt program not only for one of the school colors but also to convey “there’s gold in those mountains”—a reference both to Colorado history and the students’ potential.

The aim is to provide an alternative pathway for university applicants who are highly motivated but underprepared. The five-year program, which also includes scholarship support and internship opportunities, is hosted through the school’s Broadening Opportunity through Leadership and Diversity (BOLD) Center.

StudentsGoldshirt students work on solar oven designs during the summer bridge program and participate in a challenge course to develop trust and teamwork skills. Photo credit: Jessica Lannan and the BOLD Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Program organizers hand-select about 30 students each year. Over the years, almost two-thirds have been underrepresented minority students and a third have been women. Slightly more than half have been first-generation college students and close to a third English-language learners.

“Many diverse students are coming from schools that are not preparing them the way they need to for engineering,” explains Ennis, an African-American woman who grew up in the segregated deep south and wants to help the way she was helped.

In their first Goldshirt year, students take preparatory math and science classes (the Precalculus for Engineers class was so successful that the college decided to expand it beyond the program). They also complete courses in leadership and self-management. And students are mainstreamed into other classes, such as the introductory engineering design course.

Social support is also built in. A summer bridge program helps not only prepare participants for classes but also builds community. Mentoring connects second-year students with entering ones. And students are required to live together in a residence hall.

“They often refer to each other as their family,” says Ennis, noting that students relate to their peers’ similar backgrounds.

Massiel Puentes, a third-year Goldshirt student of Mexican descent, is the first in her family to attend college. “I wanted to make myself and my family proud,” she says, “and I know Goldshirt would allow me to do that.” The program helps her not to feel alone, she explains, and it’s worked because “staff have cared about me as a person and student and have given me all the tools to succeed.”

Jacquelyn Sullivan, the engineering college’s associate dean for inclusive excellence and the program’s founder, explains that many of the students suffer from “the bigotry of low expectations.” Some have done well in schools that haven’t actually prepared them, she explains, and they don’t know how to study.

A 2008 winner of the National Academy of Engineering’s Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education, Sullivan says nothing in her career has been as satisfying as working with the Goldshirt students.

“Engineering colleges must engage in the creating capacity piece of the equation,” she explains. “We can’t wait for engineering-college-prepared men and women to be thrown over the wall.”

The program is experiencing success—for instance, every Goldshirt student enrolled in Engineering Physics this past spring passed the class—but the organizers aim for continuous improvement. Says Ennis, “For some students, you can take them to water, they drink, and they ask for more. Others, you can bring them the bucket with the water in it and they won’t. But I can sleep at night because I’ve done everything I can to provide the opportunity.”

The University of Washington and Washington State University have also developed a similar program, called STARS (Washington STate Academic RedShirt in Engineering) that was recently funded by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Like its Colorado counterpart, the program blends academic preparation with community building.

Sullivan is excited to broaden the effort, saying, “when I learned from NSF these two organizations had been funded, my answer was two [engineering colleges] down, 98 to go.” When 100 schools have implemented similar efforts, real change can happen, she says. “Short of that, we can’t declare success.”