Jordan Chung | Poly Post

Civil Engineering Department awarded $1 million grant to close equity gaps

By Victoria Mejicanos

Congresswoman Norma Torres announced Aug. 9 the National Science Foundation has awarded Cal Poly Pomona’s Civil Engineering Department $1 million grant to address achievement gaps in undergraduate civil engineering courses.

One of the lead principal investigators on the research conducted to obtain the grant is Sunai Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Civil Engineering Department.

Kim elaborated on the grant’s purpose and what issues it aims to address in the department.

“We discussed this project in a lot of detail,” Kim said. “We talked about how to better help our students, and also how to help the students who have been historically undeserved, and we came up with three main issues that we saw with the two classes that we are trying to implement this program to and then we also propose three different solutions.”

Kim worked with five other professors in the department for six months collecting the data needed for the 15-page grant proposal, focusing on the three main issues, which are, equity gap, staff not standardized in teaching and high failure rates.

According to Kim, there are two “gatekeeper courses” or important foundational classes students failing at high rates: Engineering Statics and Mechanics of Materials.

The goal of the grant is to lower these rates and improve student outcomes as they progress through their degree.

The data collected by Kim and other professors demonstrated there was an equity, or achievement, gap between Underrepresented Minority Students and non-URM students. This, according to Kim, is “the differences in the failure rates” between both groups, which is as high as 10%.

“Once students struggle in these two classes that have been identified as gatekeeper classes, they continue to struggle in the future,” Kim said. “And we wanted to also prevent that, meaning we want the students to do well in the beginning and we want students to do well in the future.”

The grant will fund proposed solutions, which include a summer bridge program in partnership with Mt. San Antonio College and a peer tutoring program for those courses.

“We don’t want to give up on the rigor of the class because it’s really important for our student’s success,” said Kim. “But you know, sometimes students come with different high school preparation levels, and we do have to do something about that in order for those students to pass the class.”

Victoria Mejicanos | Poly Post

In addition, funding will go toward a week-long workshop for faculty to standardize the teaching in the two gatekeeper courses.

The third program being implemented is an undergraduate research program students will be able to participate in while they are enrolled in the courses. If students choose to participate, they will receive a $2,000 stipend.

“Studies have shown that once they do research, they start forming good relationships with their faculty, they feel more belonged in the university, and students are more invested in their studies,” Kim said.

Stacy Soewono, civil engineering student and vice president of the American Society of Civil Engineers on campus, shared her interest in noticing how the funds will further improve the department and its reputation.

“I think that as an active student on campus, it would be beneficial in expanding our program even more,” said Soewono, a former research assistant in the department.  “I learned that the program at Cal Poly Pomona is really beneficial and really applies to the industry compared to other universities.”

Kim shared how the grant will impact not just Cal Poly Pomona, but the California State University system as a whole.

“When this four-year project is over, we’re going to be collecting a lot of data, and we’ll be sharing it with the engineering education field to show any positive impacts that this program had on our students so that it could be replicated at other places,” Kim said.

In addition to sharing the data with other institutions, Kim shared the classes taught in the summer bridge program will be developed in a video format in partnership with MediaVision, where they will be published publicly on the civil engineering website and shared throughout the CSU system so that other students and faculty may benefit.

In a press release, University President Soraya M. Coley expressed her thanks to NSF and shared her hopes for students in the future.

“Higher education belongs to everyone, and this funding will bolster Cal Poly Pomona’s ability to help anyone who dreams of success achieve it. We are truly grateful to the National Science Foundation for their belief in our Broncos and their support in launching dedicated and committed students into lifelong careers in Civil Engineering,” said Coley.

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