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Success of Minority Engineering Programs May Have Promise for Secondary Schools

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A concerted effort begun a decade ago to increase the number of minority engineering students appears to have achieved notable results, and may provide models for secondary-school educators seeking to improve the prospects of minority students for training and careers in many fields in which they are now underrepresented.

A study, conducted by officials of the National Action Council on Minority Engineers (nacme), shows that the retention rate for minorities in some engineering schools has equaled or surpassed the rate for white students in the past 10 years. As a result, the number of minority students graduating from the nation's engineering schools during the same period has nearly tripled.

The study, which will be released next weekin New York City, attributes these gains to special enrichment programs designed to improve the retention rate for minority students at higher-education institutions throughout the country.

The success of those programs, the study's researchers point out, may offer some guidance to educators in the nation's secondary schools, particularly those responsible for the preparation of college-bound students.

Drawing on anecdotal evidence from 51 public and private institutions, Carole A. Morning, nacme vice president and co-author of the study, said that the preparation many students receive in high school proves inadequate once they are confronted with the demands of college course work.

"Many of the activities [offered in the engineering enrichment programs] are things that were not done at the high-school level," she said. "Often, the students don't have a realistic view of the competition that exists in colleges or of the amount of study that is required,'' she added.

"Minority students to a great extent have major gaps in their knowledge," said Lloyd M. Cooke, president of nacme. They more often need enrichment programs rather than remedial ones. Mr. Cooke advocates the use of testing to determine what educational material has not been previously covered.

All students, including high-school students, should learn to "study smart" by managing their time more efficiently, Mr. Cooke said.

And he noted that mastery-learning programs, which are in use in some elementary and secondary schools, use the same approach as the college enrichment programs.

The most successful college efforts have provided a comprehensive pro-gram of support services for minority students, according to Mr. Cooke.

Those programs have included diagnostic tests to assess mathematical skills, peer counseling to help students adjust to their new environment, and guest-lecture series to present professional engineers as "role models."

Preliminary data also show that minority students fare better in colleges with "pre-freshman summer programs," according to the study.

National Center

Supported by more than 160 corporations, nacme serves as a national center to help colleges recruit and support minority engineering students. This year, more than $2.5 million in grants from foundations and corporations will underwrite programs at 125 colleges and universities to benefit an estimated 3,500 minority engineering students.

Prior to 1972, when corporations, engineering associations, and college administrators first began addressing the underrepresentation of minorities in engineering, fewer than 1,200 of the nation's 43,000 engineers were members of ethnic minority groups, according to Mr. Cooke. Few minority students were graduating with engineering degrees, he said, in part because many college and university administrators did not expect them to complete the program.

The special support programs were designed to convey to minority students that they could successfully complete a college engineering course, according to Mr. Cooke. As evidence of their success, he cites the growth in the number of minority engineers from about 3,000 in 1973 to 12,500 nationwide in 1982.

Half to two-thirds of those who enrolled in engineering programs before 1973 dropped out before completing their degree, according to Mr. Cooke.

Ten years later, the retention rate at some schools has doubled and the number of graduates nationwide has nearly tripled, to 3,200 in 1982.

The University of Houston's Cullen College of Engineering, for example, had 190 minority students in 1974, representing 9 percent of the total enrollment. The number of minority students graduating that year represented 2 percent of the graduating class.

By 1981, minority students constituted 24 percent of all engineering students in the college. Of those graduating that year, 10 percent, or 44, were members of minority groups.

Houston's program, which is considered one of the most comprehensive efforts in the country, not only provides a summer program for high-school juniors and graduating seniors, but also offers "early warning" on engineering students' performance through periodic assessments, according to Benson E. Penick, a research consultant who is co-author of the nacme study.

For the past six years, the university has sponsored a two-week program on its campus for high-school juniors. This past summer, 35 students were introduced to college mathematics, computer programming, and problem solving.

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