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The successful evolution of Virginia Tech's engineering learning communities


   

Lauren Gibboney and Ed Mitchell Lauren Gibboney (left) and Ed Mitchell


BLACKSBURG, Va., Sept. 5, 2012 – In 2001, Virginia Tech's Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity launched Hypatia, a residential-based learning community for freshman women in engineering. Its mission remains steadfast today: to bring first-year women engineering students together in a residential environment designed to provide encouragement and support in pursuing engineering degrees.

Essentially, the program was comprised of students helping their peers as they pursued their aspirations to become engineers.

In its third year, Hypatia enrolled 52 women on the fourth floor of the wing of Slusher Hall. Its retention numbers were impressive; of the first three classes in Hypatia, 90 percent were still pursuing an engineering degree, 17.5 percent more than among the females who had started in engineering but had not become members of Hypatia.

Last year, a record number of female students applied; 105 out of the 300 females admitted into engineering programs.

The name Hypatia was selected because she was a Greek philosopher historically recognized as the first notable woman in the field of mathematics, and the head of the Platoist school at Alexandria around 400 AD.

As the initial successes of the Hypatia learning community mounted, Bevlee Watford,  the associate dean for academic affairs for the College of Engineering, proposed creating Galileo in 2004 as a male counterpart to Hypatia. Watford's goal was to enroll some 200 young men in Galileo, and like the Hypatians, they would be clustered in their math, chemistry, chemistry lab, and engineering explorations courses.

The program was called Galileo because as a 17th century intellect, he is called the father of science and the father of modern physics.

Each year, the young male engineering students enroll in the Galileo Seminar, a two-credit course that addresses skill development, exploration of engineering professions, and engineering activities. It was also based on the Hypatia Seminar, except the course for the females included the exploration of issues surrounding women's roles in a predominantly male field.

In the fall of 2005, 162 freshman male engineering students were members of  Galileo. After the first five years of the Galileo program, the retention/graduation rate for participants was 85 percent. The control group was at 78 percent.

The College of Engineering's goal of having the two learning communities act as both recruiting and retention programs was realized. About six years ago, a number of the participating mentors, the second-year students, decided they wanted to have an impact on how the program evolved, said Susan Arnold-Christian, assistant director of the diversity center and in charge of the combined Hypatia/Galileo program, called Galipatia.

These students wanted to be more than mentors, and a few met with Watford to determine what, if any, role they might have. As a result of the discussions, the third-year students who wished to remain became the Student Leadership Team of the program. They took control of the four committees: social, academic and professional development, community service, and announcements.

The program had started on a shoestring budget, with students volunteering to help other students. Now, Arnold-Christian said, it operates on about $40,000 a year. The money is used mostly to train and pay a nominal fee to mentors, and to provide community-activity funding, such as transportation to community service projects.

In 2010, Watford collaborated with her counterpart, Jill Sible, of Virginia Tech's College of Science, to submit a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) for almost $2 million to increase science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates in the physical and quantitative sciences at Virginia Tech. The proposal described the successful practices of the College of Engineering and its plans to adopt similar programs, including a learning community for the physical and quantitative science that would complement Hypatia and Galileo.

NSF approved the proposal, and the College of Science has added the Curie Learning Community for both men and women. Curie became the fourth learning community in the fall of 2012 at Virginia Tech, as the biological life sciences hosts the DaVinci Learning Community, aimed at helping students in animal and poultry science; biochemistry; biology; dairy science; food science; and human nutrition, foods, and exercise, as well as the majors in the College of Natural Resources and Environment.

Madam Curie was a 20th century physicist and chemist who won two Nobel Prizes. Leonardo da Vinci was considered by many to be the true Renaissance man, with talents ranging from engineering and science to architecture and painting.

With the continual evolution of the learning community environment at Virginia Tech, the next step was the decision to house all four of the groups in Lee Residence Hall starting with the 2012-13 class. The close living quarters will allow the engineering and science students to live in the inVenTs Learning Community.

The four communities within inVenTs will retain separate identities, but will have access to shared programming, activities, and classroom space in the building, as well as access to faculty, academic administrators, student affairs staff, and other students who can offer ideas, encouragement, and collaboration across various disciplines offered by the two colleges.

"inVenTs is a concept of innovation and invention," said Arnold-Christian. "Two spaces in Lee Residence Hall are being renovated into laboratory and classroom space equipped with technology so that the science and engineering students can work together on pieces of undergraduate research."

"This type of learning community may be unique to Virginia Tech," Arnold-Christian added. The almost $2 million grant over five years gives the students a small part of the "pot of gold" to further develop programs to meet the goals of the inVenTs community, Arnold-Christian said.

Lauren Gibboney of Chesapeake, Va, is one of these students. A computer science major and the 2011-12 president of the Society of Women Engineers, Gibboney spent her third year as a member of the Hypatia Leadership Team, and returned in the fall of 2012 as a member of the inVenTs Leadership Team, again breaking ground in how the learning communities at Virginia Tech are evolving to include more students in increasingly enhanced environments.

Gibboney started as a Hypatia member, and became a mentor her sophomore year. "My mentor group was really close, and it was good to help get them acclimated to college. Although I told them that reading and studying were very important, I stressed that breaks were equally important," Gibboney said. "Students came with both academic and nonacademic problems. Some things pertained more to professional development."

"Long-term, and in a perfect world, our goal would be to have Hypatia the same size as Galileo," Arnold-Christian added. "Our hopes are to achieve a more diverse community."

Ed Mitchell of Virginia Beach, Va., also a computer science major, returned in fall of 2012 as a member of the Galipatia Leadership team, overseeing the mentors of the Galileo and Hypatia programs.

Mitchell had spent both semesters of his sophomore year on the Galileo academic committee, helping students with review sessions for tests, and offering office hours where anyone could come in to get extra help. He also was part of the leadership team that participated in the process of selecting next year's mentors. "This was the first time we were part of the process. And his team has now met with this coming year's team, trying to grow the communication," he said.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 6,000 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology. Virginia Tech, the most comprehensive university in Virginia, is dedicated to quality, innovation, and results to the commonwealth, the nation, and the world.