NSF grant to jumpstart "Redshirt Program"

9/27/2016 Mike Koon, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Illinois is a part of a six-university consortium awarded a five-year, $5 million dollar grant by the National Science Foundation to implement a bridge year for incoming freshmen. This bridge year will prepare them for the rigors of an engineering curriculum.

Written by Mike Koon, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

It’s been done in athletics for years -- using a freshman year as a “redshirt year” to allow a student-athlete to grow without using a year of eligibility. Starting in the fall of 2017, a similar concept will be applied to a select group of students enrolling in Engineering at Illinois.

Illinois is a part of a six-university consortium awarded a five-year, $5 million dollar grant by the National Science Foundation to implement a bridge year for incoming freshmen. This bridge year will prepare them for the rigors of an engineering curriculum.

The other schools include the University of Washington, Washington State University and the University of Colorado, who are expanding existing programs, and fellow first-year programs at Boise State University and the University of California, San Diego.

“The National Science Foundation is funding an effort to see if this program can be more widely implemented across the country,” said Kevin Pitts, associate dean of undergraduate programs and a –co-principal investigator on the grant.

Other PIs from Illinois are Lynford Goddard, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Kimani Touissaint, associate professor of mechanical science and engineering. Illinois will receive $160,000 per year, approximately $130,000 of which will be used to fund scholarships.

The goal is to have about 25 students, all of which must be from the state of Illinois, in the first cohort. Pitts said that ideal candidates would be students with strong grade-point averages, but who may be from less affluent high schools that lack many of the more rigorous advanced placement courses.

Pitts reports that while 25 percent of the students at the University of Illinois are eligible for need-based Pell grants, only about 12 percent of students admitted to the College Engineering fit that bill. It’s a hope that the program will serve to lessen the disparity.

“This is a program to promote socio-economic diversity in science and engineering,” Pitts said. “Our college includes many students who have had the benefits associated with wealth, strong schools and extracurricular activities. For some time, we have been asking the question, ‘How can we be more accessible to students who aren’t so fortunate?’”

Administrators at Illinois were aware of the redshirt program at Washington and Colorado and interested in implementing it. The NSF grant helped accelerate the implementation process, but Pitts admits the program will need additional funding.

“The NSF Award is significant and extremely exciting, but it will not provide all of the funds necessary to run this program,” he said. “Scholarship money will be crucial for the success of this program, we are working to try identify potential individual and corporate donors who feel as strongly as we do about making the University of Illinois accessible to more strong students.”

A custom curriculum will be set up for students enrolled in the program to help prepare them for traditional freshmen year courses.  They will be guided to courses, like pre-calculus, which already exist on campus, and a few like pre-physics, for example, that may need to be created.

There will also be an orientation course, which will teach how to study, what to expect in a college experience, and how to navigate the engineering disciplines. In addition, faculty will be trained to serve as mentors to students throughout the five years.

“If you look at things that trip our students up the most, regardless of where they are when they come in, you start with math, physics, and chemistry,” Pitts said. “Therefore, that will be a strong focus of the first year. We have a lot of the pieces already. It’s a matter of putting them together and providing a dedicated support network for those students.”

One of the goals is to form a cohort of students who are taking nearly the same courses and can thus have a shared experience.

“At the same time we don’t want the students to be isolated,” Pitts admitted. “Therefore, there is going to be this balance of giving them the academic support they need to be successful and at the same time having them a part of our broader undergraduate community in the first year, through student groups for example.”

“We’re going to stick with them, but our hope is that in their second year, they will be academically equal to or perhaps beyond a typical freshman,” he added.

While academic support pieces are being developed for the redshirt program, an added benefit, according to Pitts, will be that individual pieces will be available to the broader community.

“For example, if there’s a preparatory course in chemistry, a subject that almost every engineer needs, we don’t have to limit the class to the 25 students in this cohort,” Pitts said. “We can open it up to other students who also might benefit. The same applies to other elements of the program.”

In both targeting the right students and giving them the right experiences, the hope is to have retention rates approaching that of the engineering body at Illinois, which is around 90 percent.

“We want this program to be successful for the students, but we also want it to be successful for the institution,” Pitts said. “There will be invariably some who will leave the program whether it be because of academics, a change of interest, or financial stress.  Our goal is to ensure that the students have every opportunity to succeed.  We believe that we know how to structure this program to do just that, and we are excited for the opportunity to make it happen.”

In addressing the financial component, students in the program will receive a combined scholarship package so that they will be aware of what a full five years will cost up front to help them make a clearer decision.

“I think this program is incredibly attractive to students if we can make it financially feasible for them,” Pitts said. “I hope we can make that part work so that we can focus on the academics. That’s where we want to put the majority of our efforts.” 

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This story was published September 27, 2016.