182 Improving Academic Performance and Retention for Environmental Sciences and Engineering Urban Students

Monday, 23 January 2017
4E (Washington State Convention Center )
Jorge Gonzalez, City College, New York, NY; and B. Gross, Y. Hassebo, K. Block, J. Ibsen, Y. Mejia, and N. Angulo

The need to better prepare students to enter the workforce or to seamlessly pursue more advanced degrees has resulted in an explosion of two-year degree programs. Unfortunately, these programs may be limited to advance students’ skills and are often treated as a less challenging alternative for students. In fact, a high percentage of students who enter two-year degree programs are students who do not qualify or are not admitted to a four-year college program. This particularly applies to students pursing engineering programs as their high-school training in mathematics and physics is often quite poor. The issue becomes more relevant in urban settings with a high percentage of under-represented minority students where public education resources are woefully inadequate.

In this presentation, we will describe a five-year program sponsored by the Department of Education (DOE) with the main goal of increasing retention and graduation rates in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields, the Continuous Innovative Learning Environments in STEM (CILES)program. The CILES program is a partnership between The City College of New York (CCNY-lead institution), and LaGuardia and Hostos Community Colleges, all minority and Hispanic serving institutions and part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. Two key elements of the CILES program are: 1) the development of a common 2-year curriculum in Earth System and Environmental Engineering, and 2) pro-active intervention activities to increase overall retention of mostly under-represented students.  Our main goal is to increase retention and graduation rates by improving the students’ skills such as data analysis, measurement procedures, and mathematical technique through strategically new developed hands-on modules.  The updated curriculum is complemented by continuous monitoring of students’ progress and real-time academic intervention for those that present academic risks.  The common curriculum has the additional benefit of providing a seamless transition from the Community Colleges to the senior college.  The program has created a pipeline of students from two-year colleges into the senior campus with overall increased retention rates. 

The program was designed to build from City College’s expertise in environmental engineering. City College is located in an urban area facing many environmental problems such as air pollution, water remediation, and renewable and efficient energy development, issues that open many employment opportunities and personally affect students’ quality of life.  In addition to the core environmental engineering thrusts, our program has unique specializations in remote sensing which is becoming a crucial tool for climate, weather and environmental monitoring on regional to global scales in the 21stcentury.

To illustrate our program, we provide a few representative examples that show the coordination and integration of modular programs and intervention strategies:

1.       The integration of hands-on modular courseware begins at the upper freshman level in the introduction to earth systems sciences and engineering course (approved by all campuses).  In this coordinated course, we have developed a number of laboratory based modules which are designed using a common format for easy dissemination.  Examples include:

a)       Measuring material reflectance using a portable spectrometer: This module utilizes the JAZZ 100 spectrometer system which uses a very friendly software interface to measure the spectral reflectance of many natural and manmade materials from vegetation, soils and urban land surfaces as well as specific colored targets. In making these measurements, students learn the basics of measurement error, calibration and the effect of environmental noise on the measurement process. Furthermore, the instrument allows outside measurements in a field campaign mode. The results are then compared using graphical and quantitative comparison to known spectral models of different surfaces. Highlights include how vegetation health affects the measured spectral signature and motivates the development of spectral indicators used to interpret satellite observations.  

b)      The development of computer based modules within the Matlab Software Environment: An example of such a module is the analysis of sun-photometer measurements that are designed to measure the direct solar irradiance of the sun at different wavelengths and by appropriate regression analysis, recover the particulate pollution in the atmosphere. The main highlight of this module is the use of Least Squares Analysis methods to fit data to models. This module is highly relevant to urban students in general and our students in particular due to the very complex air quality problems associated with the South Bronx. 

c)       Solar energy resource and utilization:  In this module students learn how to measure and estimate total incoming short wave solar radiation using calibrated silicon cells.  Students learn how to take solar energy measurements using portable observational radiometer units, analyze the data, and compare with physical models and satellite measurements.  The effect of the incident angle and environmental conditions is explored in the lab unit.  This lab exercise is expanded to include solar energy utilization by Photovoltaic cells to include cell performance and power outputs, and discussions about environmental and energy sustainability. 

 2.       Early Alert System:  Under the CILES program, an early alert system was developed to monitor students’ progress in individual courses and/or labs based on individual grades. The early alert system alerts about students who may evidence difficulties in particular subjects of the course enabling immediate academic support (i.e. tutoring) before next examination or project.  The system has been specifically tested in the freshmen class and preliminary results on the efficacy and simplicity of the system will be presented.

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