The program is the State Academic Red Shirt program, or STARS, and it steals the redshirt idea from college athletics, where promising students get an extra year of training before they start their eligibility.
Five years after it began, a program to help more low-income, women and minority students become engineers at the University of Washington is showing strong results, with 75 percent of its students either continuing in engineering or graduating.
The program is the State Academic Red Shirt program, or STARS, and it steals the redshirt idea from college athletics, where promising students get an extra year of training before they start their eligibility. STARS students get an additional year of intensive prerequisites to prepare them for an engineering degree, so most will graduate in five years.
The program — also offered at Washington State University, and modeled after a similar one at the University of Colorado Boulder — makes up for the reality that math instruction in Washington’s high schools is wildly uneven. Students who go to mediocre high schools often don’t have the math foundation they need to be admitted into engineering.
As UW engineering professor Eve Riskin puts it: “Your ZIP code shouldn’t determine whether you can become an engineer.”
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Last Saturday, 11 STARS students graduated, and eight others have already finished the program. Overall, seven of the students were able to finish the program in just four years, rather than needing all five.
It has proved what its founders expected to prove: that to boost students into engineering, it’s necessary to create a “community of excellence” and to remind students that what works is, simply, putting in the hard work to master complex math and science problems, said Sonya Cunningham, the director of the program.
Among those graduating this year is a student enrolled in UW’s College Assistance Migrant Program, for students from migrant and seasonal farmworker families.
Many of the graduates have landed jobs at major companies: Boeing, Microsoft, AT&T, Expedia, Honeywell, Sage Bionetworks, the state Department of Transportation, and the independent, nonprofit Center for Infectious Disease Research.
The program has been funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, and in 2016, STARS also received a state grant from the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship program to double in size, adding 32 new students to its program each year for two years. That grant expires in 2019.
The program now helps students over two years, instead of just offering assistance the first year. At the end of the second year, students who have maintained a 3.0 GPA begin taking classes in the College of Engineering. As well, Microsoft — which funded the Opportunity Scholarship grant by donating research-and-development credits — has donated computers for all of the students.
Last week, Cunningham received the David B. Thorud Leadership Award from the university for her work on STARS.