Engineering at Illinois Partners with Chi S&E for Chicago Pre-College Program


Mike Koon, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Engineering is one of many universities nationwide with efforts to expand its reach to underrepresented students. To that end, Engineering at Illinois is partnering with Chicago Pre-College Science and Engineering (Chi S&E), a non-profit organization that conducts workshops in math and engineering for middle school students in Chicago with the objective of preparing inner-city students for college science and engineering programs. The ultimate goal is to create a generation of scientists and engineers of color.

Illinois students and faculty participated in the first of four fall sessions with the program on Oct. 24 in Chicago.
Illinois students and faculty participated in the first of four fall sessions with the program on Oct. 24 in Chicago.
“There have been significant efforts for a long time to improve diversity in engineering, but though not for a lack of effort, they haven’t significantly expanded our underrepresented student population,” explained Kevin Pitts, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs in the College of Engineering. “There have been a number of studies that have shown that so-called leaky pipeline begins very early on with students getting steered away from technology at around middle school age. We have been contemplating how to help with the pipeline for some time now and are trying to do so with this partnership.”

Chi S&E, now in its seventh year, began by developing K-4 interactive programs with the philosophy that parents must be engaged in student learning.  The Saturday programs have been very successful, consisting of 50-70 students per grade.  The University of Illinois math department has partnered with Chi S&E for 5th and 6th grade curricula on geometry and probability. This year, Engineering at Illinois, in collaboration with the university’s College of Education, will pilot a 7th grade program that will focus on a pre-algebra and physics curriculum.  

Starting on October 24, 40 Chicago Public School (CPS) 7th graders are participating in a four-week program, three of which will be in Chicago and the fourth on the University of Illinois campus. Prior to that, CPS teachers attended a workshop at the U of I to become familiar with new instructional methods and collaborative learning techniques.

“The idea of doing that is not only to have CPS teachers lead those sessions, but also allow them to bring the material to their own classroom,” said Sahid Rosado Lausell, Outreach Coordinator for the College. “All the research now says that kids should be spending more time in projects and being interactive and less time in textbooks and doing rote memorization. Helping these teachers by showing them the kind of projects they can do with kids will have a multiplier effect in the longer term.”

Students from organizations like the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), the Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) from both the Urbana-Champaign and Chicago campuses will join Illinois faculty and CPS teachers as well as Illinois students in education programs in the classroom to work with the seventh graders and provide real-life role models for these aspiring engineers. 

“We started this program because we are committed to helping prepare kids for college-level engineering programs,” said Kenneth Hill, founder and executive director of Chi S&E. “We are thrilled to be partnering with Engineering at Illinois. Their support enables us to build upon the existing program and provide talented young students an opportunity to excel.”

This is only the beginning of an investment in which Engineering at Illinois might not reap the benefits for a decade or more.

Students used a graphing calculator for the first time at the Oct. 24 workshop.
Students used a graphing calculator for the first time at the Oct. 24 workshop.
“We offer competitive scholarships to underrepresented minority students that are high achieving and once they are here, we are mentoring students on campus through programs like Women in Engineering and the Morrill Engineering Program,” Pitts reiterated. “Those are good things, but we also know that they are not going to move the needle very far. So this longer-term investment is something that we have to do and are committed to.”

The plan is to continue the program for the seventh graders over six Saturdays in the spring. Those sessions will include additional Illinois physics faculty and incorporate practicing engineers from industry as well as a visit to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The program plans to add a grade each year, which will continue to focus on mathematics preparation in addition to a new engineering topic. The ultimate goal is for a K-12 program, which will enroll approximately 120 students per grade, for a total of 1,500 students in all grades. 

“The most important part of it is math,” Rosado Lausell said. “A student can come here and succeed in engineering without ever having had any high school level engineering courses; however, they can’t succeed if they don’t have a strong math background. That is why math is the undercurrent of this whole program and why we are partnering with the College of Education to provide that training.”

The program is also looking beyond Chicago. Pitts believes the program can be replicated in cities like Peoria and East St. Louis and include summer camps, which will bring these students to campus. The College of Engineering has also proposed a “redshirt program” where students with a high chance of success, but who have not had access to the preparatory materials that most kids receive, can spend their first year of college learning that material before beginning their regular college courses.

With such a grand vision, the program is looking for a corporate partner. With many companies experiencing similar shortfalls in diversity, it is the hope to attract a partner looking not only to give back, but also make a similar investment in its workforce.

 “An investment of this scope and scale is absolutely critical to begin making a serious impact in providing opportunities for students in these communities,” Pitts concluded. “We are making a modest investment to get it off the ground, but we will need corporate partners to keep it going.”