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To help students from all backgrounds succeed in engineering, WVU research targets academic support programs

Two students engaging in hands-on learning activity.

A three-year WVU research project will study “BEST” programs, which help engineering majors build the skills they need to succeed, but often struggle to recruit students from underserved communities. In this photo, students participate in an activity in the Academy of Engineering Success program. (WVU Photo/Isis Moore)

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Women. Residents from rural or low-income households. Underrepresented minorities. First-generation college students. These are the people undergraduate engineering programs fail to reach, according to a West Virginia University researcher.

As a teaching assistant professor in the Fundamentals of Engineering program at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, Xinyu Zhang is tasked with helping recruit students like these to WVU and making sure they get the support and foundational knowledge needed for a successful transition to higher education and to tackle a rigorous engineering course load.

Now, with $350,000 in funding from the National Science Foundation, Zhang will lead a three-year nationwide effort to learn more about underserved students’ awareness of programs similar to the WVU Academy of Engineering Success. That program and others like it provide “evidence-based, well-structured activities to enhance engineering students’ academic and professional success in the college transition and increase their retention in the engineering major,” she said.

To study the decisions prospective college students make about whether to apply to these programs, Zhang will analyze responses to surveys and interviews her team will conduct with more than 2,000 program leaders and prospective and current students across the U.S. Their feedback will build an understanding of the effectiveness of different methods for recruiting students to BEST, or “Baccalaureate Engineering Success and Transition,” programs.

“Engineering shapes our world and the engineers of tomorrow should reflect the diversity of the society they serve,” Zhang said. “BEST programs often struggle to attract diverse students and the pandemic has worsened this problem. This research is a beacon of hope, reaching out to the untapped potential of underserved students.

“My goal is to broaden participation in four-year engineering programs in the U.S. by finding the most effective, sustainable methods for reaching students who are underrepresented in engineering and persuading them to sign up for these programs. We’re not just addressing an enrollment challenge — we’re promoting a diverse workforce that truly represents and understands the needs of our nation. When we uplift these students, we uplift their families and their communities, and our efforts have the potential to enhance economic growth in rural areas.”

Every day, Zhang sees firsthand the impact a BEST program can have on students who arrive at WVU without having taken calculus or other foundational STEM classes in high school. Courses like Zhang’s Professional Development in Engineering, Academic Success Skills and Engineering Problem Solving put disadvantaged students on an even footing with their peers.

Those classes also begin preparing students almost immediately for engineering careers.

We work hard thinking about what makes students better job candidates and soft skills are critical for a lot of recruiters. That’s the ability to work on a team, for example, or to manage time — things that matter in real-world situations. Students from underserved groups who build the skills they need to succeed in academia may still face additional challenges when they become professionals. BEST programs and similar resources can help them thrive beyond the classroom,” Zhang said.

“Knowing the content is important, of course, but so is self-confidence. They need to learn to believe they can do it, and they need to be comfortable and confident doing it. Those types of things play a major role in keeping students in engineering and BEST programs can build self-efficacy. That’s why it’s important to figure out how to recruit more and more students to those programs.”

The surveys Zhang will conduct through partnerships with over 100 BEST programs build on her prior research into best practices for helping students succeed. In addition to studying the effectiveness of different student recruitment techniques, in past projects she has examined how the need to hold down a job while attending college affects academic performance, as well as how to integrate conflict resolution sessions into group coursework.

“I understand what it can be like not to feel supported in your field,” Zhang said. “My own family was encouraging, but when I was growing up, I still heard a lot from my teachers that because I was a girl I should pursue a liberal arts major even though I excelled in math and science, or that I would not always be able to compete with the boys as a leader.

“Whether it’s women like me or students from minority or rural or low-income communities, I want to help get engineering students into BEST programs because I know what I went through and how it felt to be discouraged in school. I was able to make it, so I want students with the same struggles to have a chance to gain confidence and courage. Every student deserves an opportunity to succeed, and every community can benefit from their success.”



MEDIA CONTACT: Micaela Morrissette
Research Writer
WVU Research Communications


Paige Nesbit
Marketing and Communications Director
WVU Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

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