Howard University Engineers SuccessInterdisciplinary study keeps the university on the cutting edge
BY CASSIE M. CHEW
Less than three months before graduation, Howard University engineering student Artis Johnson is displaying signs of “senoritis.” As he completes the coursework toward his bachelor’s degree in systems and computer science, he can’t keep his thoughts off of graduation day or that day sometime in the near future when he hopes to accept an offer for his first job after college.Despite the accomplishments Johnson plans to achieve in the next few months, he still has taken time to map out a five-year plan — “I want to get a couple of years in the workplace and then return to Howard for an advanced (engineering) degree,” he said.Johnson’s future plans likely will instill pride in the North Carolina native’s family and in the faculty at the Howard University college of engineering, architecture and computer sciences. Over the past five years, the engineering disciplines within the college have experienced some surges in degrees conferred across its bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral engineering programs along with some dips in the number of African American students who have earned degrees in these programs.According to Engineering Workforce Commission annual reports, in 1999 Howard University graduated 108 students, 92 of which were African American, in its chemical, civil, electrical, mechanical engineering programs, and computer science programs.After two more years of graduating approximately 100 students across programs, in 2002, according to EWC, Howard conferred degrees to 204 graduates in the engineering disciplines — 128 to African American students.In 2003, Howard, the only HBCU Research I institution, saw the number of engineering graduates slip to 152 students. That year the college conferred degrees to 81 African American students. But that year’s group of 152 graduates also included 14 doctoral students, 11 of which were African American.The dip in the number of African American students graduating from the engineering program between 2002 and 2003 has been related to the increasing SAT scores among students applying to the college, explains Dr. James H. Johnson Jr., dean of Howard University’s college of engineering, architecture and computer sciences.“Howard has been attracting good students,” Johnson said. “The average SAT score for the class of 2003 was 1203.”In general, the students with higher test scores were more likely to obtain financial aid in the form of Howard University scholarships, Johnson said. College of engineering applicants who weren’t top scorers among the college’s pool of students accepted to the program during that time frame chose colleges and universities that were able to provide them with better financial aid packages, Johnson said.“Some schools have thanked Howard for not being able to provide scholarships (to all engineering-bound applicants), because their programs have benefited,” Johnson said.
HUSEM Increases PercentagesJohnson and other Howard University faculty credit the school’s recent surge in the number of overall graduates to programs like the Howard University Science, Engineering and Mathematics program (HUSEM).Instituted in 1999 with a grant from the National Science Foundation, HUSEM is designed to recruit and retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, said Dr. Lorraine Fleming, a professor of civil engineering and director of HUSEM. It recently began a focus on identifying “Ph.D.-bound” students and helping them go the distance, Fleming added.The program also links undergraduate students to opportunities to work with faculty research projects, and offers tutoring in “gatekeeper” courses, such as calculus and chemistry, and “bottleneck” courses, such as dynamics, to help retain students in the disciplines. HUSEM also provides students mentoring from faculty, upperclassmen and alumni and the opportunity to network with engineering professionals.“Many things we are doing are producing good results,” Fleming said. The success of the program is evidenced by the increase in the percentage of students successfully completing Chemistry I, Physics I and Calculus I and the increase in the number of African Americans in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who graduate with a GPA above 3.0, Fleming said.As a senior, Artis Johnson now mentors underclassmen in HUSEM on life outside of the classroom while encouraging the students to develop the skills to stay on course.“It takes a lot of time to finish the work — you need to learn time-management skills,” Johnson said.Last month HUSEM’s efforts were recognized at the 13th Annual National Quality Education for Minorities/Mathematics, Science and Engineering (QEM/MSE) Conference held in Washington. The QEM/MSE Network is a coalition of minority and non-minority educational institutions, school districts, and national mathematics, science, and education organizations that was established in 1991. HUSEM received the Exemplary Program Award for Mathematics, Science and Engineering Education.
Interdisciplinary ResearchIn 2003 Howard University experienced a surge in the number of engineering doctoral graduates, and the college’s strategy of conducting research that combines disciplines likely will lead to another surge in doctoral degrees in the next three years, Dean Johnson said.The statistics on master’s and doctoral candidates can fluctuate due to variances in each student’s program.“At the graduate level and especially the Ph.D. levels the students move through the program in waves,” Johnson explained. “Many times it is related to the infusion of funding. What we typically average are three to five (doctoral) students per year. Some years there has only been one but other years as many as 10. It is related to the movement of students through the program and the funding and the projects they are working on.“In 2007 we’ll probably return to another 10 to 11 students,” Johnson said. “The reason is we have received significant funding from two NSF grants in our material science and nanotechnology areas.”Nanobiotechnology is an emerging area of scientific and technological opportunity that integrates nano/microfabrication and biosystems to the benefit of both. The college’s nanobiotechnology center — a partnership with Cornell University (which is a stipulation of many NSF grants) — was established in January 2000. The center is characterized by its highly interdisciplinary nature and features a close collaboration between life scientists, physical scientists and engineers.“We have all the ingredients to make significant contributions,” said Johnson, citing Howard University’s schools of medicine and pharmacy as resources.“We need our young people now to be able to step across disciplinary lines,” Johnson said. “Now you don’t talk about biochemical engineering or mechanical engineering — you talk about biomedical engineering. You don’t talk about civil engineering or chemical engineering — you talk about environmental engineering. These are professionals that bring disciplines other than those we traditionally have had,” Johnson said.Although she generally works with bachelor’s-level students, Fleming agrees that the borders of engineering disciplines are becoming blurred. “There are new frontiers in science and engineering, and we are introducing students to the new ‘sexy’ areas of science,” Fleming said.In addition to nanotechnology, the college’s research projects include work in material science, environmental science, atmospheric science and energy.“We are not as large as the University of Michigan or the University of Illinois, but we have the same type of expertise and so we look at opportunities for interdisciplinary research,” Johnson said.“Our mission is to educate students to solve problems successfully,” Johnson said. “We think those are the most challenging problems no matter where we are in the world. The problems that you or I can solve with application of a single discipline are fast going away.”
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