Benefits of OU Engineering Bridge Program Stretch Beyond Summer

The University of Oklahoma (OU) has a long history of supporting minority students majoring in engineering. The College of Engineering’s Multicultural Engineering Program (MEP), which works to recruit and retain minorities and women, was founded in 1981 (although, at that time it was called the Minority Engineering Program).

Students in the University of Oklahoma’s summer bridge program build Rube Goldberg contraptions, which make simple tasks difficult.
Students in the University of Oklahoma’s summer bridge program build Rube Goldberg contraptions, which make simple tasks difficult.

Recognizing the challenges these students face upon arriving at a predominantly white campus like OU, the MEP developed a summer bridge program in 2007 to help students form a community with their peers and prepare them academically before the start of their first semester. OU’s College of Engineering has also used the program as a valuable recruiting tool.

The summer bridge program, sponsored by AT&T since 2008, was designed with minority, low-income, and first-generation students in mind, but all incoming freshmen who plan to major in engineering are welcome to apply. To facilitate team and community building, participation is limited to 50 students.

During the four-week program, students enroll in a math course — which has counted for college credit since last year and is funded by Dolese Bros. Co. — and an introductory non-credit chemistry class. Additionally, they complete a Rube Goldberg project every day, which Lisa Morales, executive director of the diversity and inclusion program and the MEP at OU, says is “the exact opposite of engineering” because it involves building a contraption that makes a simple task difficult. In the evenings, engineering upperclassmen provide tutoring, and faculty and staff lead professional development seminars.

Thanks to a $1 million gift from AT&T, the cost per student for the program is only $400 and includes lodging, tuition, and meals. The fee has remained the same since the program began.

OU 2014 summer bridge program participants
OU 2014 summer bridge program participants

Morales says the program originated as a way to ensure that underrepresented minority students enrolling at OU were prepared for the rigorous coursework of an engineering major.

“There was a problem with kids not being math-ready out of high school, and we knew the schools were failing students,” Morales says. “We wanted to ensure students had a successful transition into the engineering program. And we know that poor-performing high schools are often in poorer socioeconomic areas and that those students are mostly underrepresented minority students.”

To get them on the same level as their peers, participants are placed into College Algebra, Pre-calculus, or Calculus I, depending on their incoming ability. In the 2014 summer cohort, 100 percent of the 39 students advanced at least one level in math by the time they reached their first semester, putting them on track with the majority of their peers, Morales says.

In addition to preparing students for rigorous math courses, Morales says that the summer bridge program facilitates lasting bonds between students, which help carry them through their challenging first year.

“[The MEP] has a freshman orientation class, which I teach,” Morales says, “and I have witnessed how fellow bridge students come in on the first day, and they’re high-fiving and talking about their chemistry or calculus classes and sitting together. But the other students are on their phones or are pretending to be otherwise occupied. … There’s a comfort in knowing other students, and that continues into the spring semester and into their sophomore year, too.”

She says the summer bridge program benefits majority students as well because they meet diverse students with whom they may not have otherwise connected.

This summer, about half of the 45 students participating in the bridge program self-identified as white male. The rest of the group is composed of underrepresented minority or female students, which Morales says is still a significant proportion.

Former participants say their favorite part of the program was getting to know their classmates and learning from upperclassmen, faculty, and engineering professionals. They also say feeling more prepared and having a head start helped immensely.

“As soon as these students step foot on a predominantly white campus, the self-doubt kicks in, that ‘imposter syndrome.’ And they start to believe it and think that they’re not the right fit,” says Morales. “The bridge program gives them the confidence to know that they’re good enough and that they belong here.”●

Rebecca Prinster is a senior staff writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.