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ASPIRE Targets Retention

A $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will take aim at keeping students at UNH

The University of New Haven has been awarded a $600,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to boost engineering student retention rates. The five-year grant permits the university’s Tagliatela College of Engineering to participate in A Scholarship Program to Increase Retention in Engineering (ASPIRE), an NSF initiative to increase the retention rate of engineering students, especially those from underrepresented groups and with financial needs.Pursuing a demanding engineering curriculum is difficult enough for most students.

ASPIRE

Adding in the need to work during the semester can multiply that difficulty to the point that it will take longer to get their degrees or they may even fail to complete their program. Students may have to work in jobs that do not complement their engineering goals. Beyond that, such students may lack the time to participate in the full range of activities and professional development that are available to other students.

According to TCoE Dean Ron Harichandran, “Our data show that 85 percent of UNH students need financial aid, but the university cannot fully meet all of their needs. The average gap between financial aid and what is still needed for engineering students enrolled in 2010-11 was $7,400, which makes it very difficult for students with families–particularly women–to complete their degrees on time.”

Many students in the UNH engineering program must work at least part-time, the dean noted, and each year more than 20 percent reduce their course load to part-time so they can work more hours.

 “Another benefit of awarding scholarships to these students is that they will gain confidence and more time to participate in the extracurricular programs, including service, internships and other activities, that the college has to offer reducing the need to work to support their studies,” said the dean.

The ASPIRE grant will permit the university to provide scholarships to sophomore and junior level students who have both financial need and have demonstrated merit. UNH will also award scholarships to community college transfer students, and provide support services including engineering tutors and mentors to guide the students.

The grant will allow some of those students to remain as full-time students, improving academic performance, allowing them to graduate in a shorter amount of time, and helping them focus more on academics during their sophomore and junior years.

“The scholarship program also will encourage students to complete the engineering internship requirement of the college during the summer while they are not taking a full course load,” said Jean Nocito-Gobel, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UNH and principal investigator on the grant. 

Professor Nocito-Gobel, along with Co-PIs Christopher Martinez (assistant professor, Computer Engineering) and Maria-Isabel Carnasciali (assistant professor, Mechanical Engineering) were the authors of the grant proposal. An initial proposal submitted in 2010 was denied, but the authors were not discouraged and submitted a revised proposal in 2011. This one was successful and became the first such scholarship program funded by the NSF at TCoE. The successful proposal detailed four major objectives:

  • Provide scholarships based on both financial need and merit to sophomore and junior level students over 5 years, totaling approximately $108,000 per year. 
  • Recruit and provide scholarships to high academically performing community college transfer students over 5 years. 
  • Provide support services that include engineering tutors to complement the current university-tutoring center.
  • Increase student engagement in college- and university-wide activities that contribute to persistence such as mentoring STEM students, participating at academic conferences in their field, service learning activities, and graduate and professional networking events.

The first eight scholarship recipients were announced in December 2012 and will receive support for the spring semester: Courtney Collins (Electrical Engineering),Doug O’Shea (Civil Engineering), Jessica Glade (Civil Engineering), Syed Razvi (Electrical Engineering), James Pearson (Computer Engineering), Christian Ruiz (Computer Engineering), Frank Pellicano (Electrical Engineering) and Eric Brundage (Mechanical Engineering). Professor Nocito-Gobel estimates that the grant will provide support for up to 77 students during its five-year period, in addition to funding the targeted support services.

Reactions from students who received the scholarships indicate just how well the ASPIRE grant will make a difference here at UNH. As Courtney Collins noted,“To pay for school, rent and everything else I have to work two part-time jobs. The scholarship covers what I will need to pay out of pocket, not including loans, for each semester so far, so it will help tremendously. Having less pressure to work with more time to study really eases stress.”

And Frank Pellicano’s reaction speaks to many of the reasons why TCoE sought the ASPIRE grant in the first place. “My reaction upon receiving the award was complete joy. This scholarship will help me immensely. Due to the recent tough economic times, my parents have struggled to finance my aspirations to achieve my dreams of being an electrical engineer. This scholarship greatly helps lift the burdens the bills would have had next semester, which will give them time to prepare for the next few years and help keep them on their feet. As I continue to work hard, this scholarship will help me continue my path to achieve my dreams.”

The Tagliatela College of Engineering offers bachelor’s degrees in chemical, civil, computer, electrical, mechanical, and system engineering that are accredited by the Engineering Accreditation Commission of ABET, www.abet.org. The college also offers a new bachelor’s degree program in sustainability studies, and eight master’s degree programs.

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