Newswise — At the most fundamental level, civil engineering students at UNLV are in school to learn how to build all of the structures and systems a community uses daily: roads, dams, transportation networks, water treatment facilities, buildings and their foundations, and bridges.

And as the nation’s infrastructure continues to age, the role of civil engineers in today’s society has never been more vital.

But civil engineering faculty, along with collaborators in UNLV’s College of Education, are hoping to build and strengthen another kind of bridge — a bridge to help engineering students stay in school and graduate.

“We tend to lose students in the first and second years,” said Haroon Stephen, associate professor of civil engineering at UNLV. “This project places a renewed focus on finding out how to keep them here, help them succeed while they’re here, and prepare them to join the state’s workforce.”

With a $2.5 million grant in hand from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Stephen is leading a group of civil engineering and education researchers on a five-year venture to boost retention and graduation rates among undergraduate civil engineering students.

“I’m really excited about the collaboration,” said Blanca Rincón, an assistant professor in the College of Education and co-lead on the grant. “I think we’re a really good team, and I think we care about the impact of the work. If you have those ingredients, you’re bound to see success.”

Stephen and colleagues received the NSF award in fall 2019 and they mobilized quickly to get the project off the ground. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit a few months later.

While the pandemic has shifted much of their work from in-person to remote collaborations, the project is moving forward as it was originally conceived.

It’s rooted in three main components: community building, curricular innovation, and culturally-responsive teaching, with an overarching goal to see a 5% increase in first-year student retention over the five-year period.

And while the project stands on its own as an effort to improve student success among civil engineering students, Stephen also sees it as a vital part of the university’s broader Top Tier strategic plan.

“There are so many pathways to get to where we want to be, and it might be difficult to pinpoint which pathway actually led to it,” Stephen said. “I see this project as a contributor to the university’s Top Tier efforts. So, the path itself — and not necessarily who gets the credit — is the key objective for us.”

Building community

As the interdisciplinary team moves forward with this in mind, the first component — community cohesion building — is at the forefront of their efforts, and a majority of their resources have been directed to it.

The goal is to create small communities of learners so that students meet outside of the classroom, and also develop networks on which to rely, Stephen said.

“Most freshmen don’t have a strong peer network their first semester or their first year,” said Neil Tugadi, a civil engineering graduate assistant who’s leading the community building effort. “We want them to gain a sense of community, and we want the students to feel comfortable coming to their professors so that their first year is less intimidating.”

The team has been working heavily since spring to recruit freshmen to join the project. For those who have been recruited to date, students have formed cohorts and have met regularly to work on projects, exchange ideas, and participate in fun activities.

With the COVID-19 pandemic in play, these collaborations are now happening remotely, with future plans to host once-a-semester social events and field trips. In late spring, students met online in teams to work on projects as part of the Engineering for People Design Challenge.

It’s the first time Engineers Without Borders-USA joined the competition, with UNLV among the original three pilot schools, said Erica Marti in the department of civil & environmental engineering and construction. One UNLV team came away as the grand champion in the event’s final challenge, and another won the people’s choice award.

“Our students showed excellent teamwork and creativity on the projects,” Marti said. “Our goal is to get students to network with each other and with their professors from the very beginning, because research shows that when students have a social network, they’re more likely to be successful.”

The first two years of the degree program are “critical,” added Rincón.

“If students are not successful in their introductory courses, they won’t continue on to more advanced classwork,” Rincón said. “Creating cohesive activities, building a sense of belonging, and improving the culture means that we are more likely to retain students.”

Students are also more likely to persist if the curriculum they encounter is coherent from the moment they enter the classroom on their first day — from lesson to lesson, and from course to course.

That’s why the researchers have their eye on ways to improve the curriculum as another component of the project.

“When the students enter the classroom the first day, they should have a clear layout of the plan for the whole semester — not just a bunch of topics listed on the syllabus,” Stephen said. “They should know day by day what topics will be covered; they should know homework deadlines and exam topics. If we start all of a sudden to crank up the difficulty level halfway through the semester, students won’t be prepared. You can’t expect students to change at the instructor’s will.”

Additionally, since engineering usually involves a large amount of group work, Rincón sees this as something faculty can capitalize on.

“Engineering tends to be more hands-on,” Rincón said. “Faculty have to help students see the relationship between what they’re learning in the class and then being able to apply it.”

This also dovetails into the team’s work to encourage and develop culturally responsive teaching practices among faculty. The team remotely delivered its first workshops to civil engineering faculty this fall, with the goal to broaden their efforts in subsequent years to engineering faculty at large, and eventually, all of UNLV’s STEM faculty. 

Culturally responsive teaching, Rincón said, can take many forms.

At a basic level, it can be learning a student’s name — which may seem like a small thing, but really makes an impact on the student, especially if they’re learning in a large lecture hall, she said. It also means taking the time to correctly pronounce their names.

“If you take the time to learn a student’s name, they know that they aren’t just one of a number in the class,” Rincón said. “It’s one way to signal that you care.”

Faculty might also learn how to identify and limit microaggressions, Stephen said, and instead promote micro-affirmations.

“If someone reaches out to me and says, ‘So, where you grew up, did they have electricity?’” he said. “It’s a very simple question, but it’s also implying something.”

Culture of acceptance

While all three of the components are being developed to help retain and graduate all students in civil engineering, the funding from NSF was granted to UNLV because of its designation as a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI). The work supports a broader goal of diversifying the workforce in the sciences and helping underserved students succeed.

There are barriers that underserved students face when pursuing a higher education degree of any kind, Rincón said, but those challenges become magnified in STEM.

“What is our responsibility as an HSI to provide an environment where students can thrive?” Rincón said.

Creating a culture in STEM that is responsive to the students it serves is vital, she said, as a student who identifies as a woman or a person of color might be one of only a few in a class. It’s also important to demystify things like faculty office hours.

“A first-generation student might think that you only go to the professor’s office when something is wrong,” she said. “They might not know that office hours can be about something else, too — getting to know your professor and creating networks outside the classroom. It’s our responsibility to demystify these processes.”

Faculty should also recognize all of the strengths that students bring with them.

“Students draw on their community cultural wealth,” Rincón said. “Students of color in STEM want to give back — it’s a value instilled by their family and community. They navigate environments that are often not very welcoming to them and help their peers navigate these environments as well.”

In the end, Rincón said she hopes this project shifts the focus from universities being inclusive to universities being reflective. 

“We need to transform the institutions to reflect the students that we serve,” Rincón said. “As the students who we’re serving are changing, we have to change with them.”