The thought of being stuck behind a desk all day terrifies Brittany Jump. “Being able to get out and work with my hands would be what I really want to do,” she says.
In high school, Jump thought the best way to get there would be to study business. But the thought of that desk still bothered her. “It just kind of hit me – I enjoy problem solving, working with my hands, so maybe I can do something else, too,” she says.
Brad Elliot wants to work in robotics or artificial intelligence, likes to read and play video games, especially older classics like Super Mario Bros. 3.
“If I had to pick a job right now, the coolest job for me would be working for Nintendo,” he says. “They’re one of the coolest companies out there.”
Daniel Nall has always been interested in cars and how they work. He has a 2008 Scion TC that he’s modified himself – put in fog lights, altered the interior lighting, added custom pedals and gear shifter, and customized the headlights and the grille.
“I’ve always had a pretty good concept of math, and an appreciation for solving problems,” says Nall.
Jump, Elliott and Nall, three members of a diverse and academically impressive class of 2013, chose the University of Kentucky’s College of Engineering for different reasons. But they represent the results of the college’s new emphasis on marketing engineering and computer science as a pathway to satisfying and lucrative careers to highly qualified students – and aggressively recruiting those students.
The results are paying off.
This fall, due to a 25% increase in freshmen and an improved retention rate among upper classmen, undergraduate enrollment at the college rose to 2,087 from last fall’s 1,818. This is the largest enrollment the college has had in the past ten years.
“Along with an increase in the number of students, we have seen an increase in the quality,” says Dr. Richard Sweigard, the college’s associate dean for administration and academic affairs. Over the past few years, the average high school GPA of the freshman class has risen, along with a spike in the number of high school valedictorians and Governor’s Scholars Program students choosing to attend the College of Engineering.
The current freshman class has 64 Governor’s Scholars and Governor’s School for the Arts alumni, along with 36 valedictorians – an all-time high. “One of the prime reasons we’ve seen this is thanks to our expanded recruiting efforts.” Sweigard credits the efforts of College of Engineering recruiters James Ballard, Ron Robinson and Isaiah Surbrook.
Ballard, Robinson and Surbrook are part of a new targeted recruitment process that identifies qualified students through high school visits and one-on-one sessions. “Ron Robinson is really the originator of our process,” Sweigard says. “We’ve just implemented the method he developed over his time in the mining engineering department. Over the past five years he grew mining engineering’s enrollment by nearly 600%. So we’re very pleased with what he, James and Isaiah are doing for the college as a whole.”
A new “automatic scholarship,” which gives freshmen $3,000 a semester for up to eight semesters if they score a minimum 29 composite ACT score, a minimum 33 math ACT score and have a 3.5 high school GPA, is also a factor in the enrollment bump.
Because it is important to create a comfortable academic and social environment for students, the college is striving to expand vital and engaging student honor, professional and social organizations.
The increased quality of students at the College of Engineering has had other unforeseen effects as well. “At least in my opinion, we’ve seen a big jump in the level of student involvement,” Sweigard says. “Especially when it comes to interdisciplinary teams like the Solar Car project or the Solar Decathlon house.”
Interdisciplinary opportunities and unconventional programs such as Scholars in Engineering and Management (SEAM) offers the opportunity to live in Ingels Hall and participate in a living learning community for students interested in engineering and business. Another interdisciplinary opportunity is the BS/MBA program which integrates engineering and essential business courses and includes a unique study abroad component.
“We have developed strong relationships and provided more opportunities for students through things like the SEAM program and the biopharmaceutical certificate program,” Sweigard says.
For Jump, chemistry and math have always been her best subjects, so the SEAM program, which combines classes at the College of Engineering with classes at the Gatton College of Business and Economics, seemed like a natural fit. “It is geared toward exactly what I am looking for,” she says.
Jump is currently considering studying biochemical or biopharmaceutical engineering, but she still hasn’t completely made up her mind. She’s just glad she doesn’t have to.
“I was always ‘the brainy girl’ in high school, but I was also on the cheerleading team,” she says. “Here, I have the chance to restart, be who I want to be, and be friends with the people I want to be friends with. It’s so relaxing.”
“I live just 20 minutes from here, so I grew up as a UK sports fan,” Elliott says. As a student at Woodford County High School, he really enjoyed his math classes and “I know people who are really interesting who are engineers,” he says. So when he came to UK for Merit Weekend, computer engineering seemed like a natural fit.
The size of UK has taken some adjusting. “When I got here at first it seemed so big,” he says. There were only 280 students in his graduating class. “I thought I never would be able to know everyone here. Then I realized how many ways there were to get involved.”
“I was surprised by how much teaching my professors did on the first day of class,” Elliott says. “I was expecting them to just review or go over the syllabus. Instead we learned a lot of new stuff on the first day.”
Nall had initially planned to go out of state, but when he attended the Governor’s Scholars Program last summer, a talk about staying in the state persuaded him to take another look at his options in Kentucky. He came to Lexington for a tour and “felt like UK wanted me to be there.”
He’s since joined SME’s Formula One Team, which designs and builds a formula-style race car from scratch for an annual competition in Detroit, Mich. Nall’s on the team responsible for setting up the differential portion of the drive train and aligning it with the suspension.
“I came into it thinking I knew a lot about cars, but I’m starting to realize how little I know about it compared to some of the upperclassmen here,” he says. “I’m willing to learn, though.”
While attracting highly qualified students is important, keeping them is equally important.
The increased retention rate is due to several factors, not the least of which are higher admissions standards. “Several years ago we implemented a minimum ACT score of 23 for incoming freshmen,” says Sweigard. “We saw a ten-point jump in retention immediately.”
“Math proficiency is a big indicator of how quickly someone will understand new concepts in engineering,” Dr. Thomas Lester, dean of the College of Engineering explains, stating that since the minimum score requirement was instituted five years ago the freshman retention rate has been steadily ticking upward.
The college has also endeavored to improve freshman retention rates in order to help students stay in the program. “We’ve worked hard with the university’s assistance to put a professional staff adviser in every department,” Lester says.
Sweigard explains that the college has also changed an old academic policy that dropped students if their cumulative GPA fell below a certain point. Freshmen unaccustomed to the rigorous environment of the College of Engineering were being automatically placed on suspension after their first semester, even before they had a chance to get their bearings. Now, Sweigard says, struggling freshmen have a little more time to be counseled by the advising staff and get back on their feet. “Those students who we would have lost before, now we are able to save,” he says.
Lester has reasons to be optimistic about the college’s future. “With continued effort in recruitment, we will be able to exceed our peak enrollment in a year or two,” he says. Having a growing program is a great asset for Kentucky, Lester says. As new engineers graduate, Lester hopes an increasing number will make the decision to stay in the state to join existing companies or create new ones. “Having talented engineers in the state creates a magnet for companies to move into the state,” Lester says.
“All the challenges our society faces right now have a technical nature – alternative energy, combating terrorism, healthcare,” Lester says. “Strong engineers, especially here in Kentucky, will help us fight these challenges as we move into the future.”
From: Versailles, Ky.
High school: Woodford County High School
High school activities: He was on the Student Council, a member of the Spanish Club and part of the Academic Team, where he was part of the Quick Recall Team, Future Problem Solving Team and took written tests in mathematics.
College major: Computer Engineering
College activities: He is a Singletary Scholar, a member of the Student Activities Board cinema committee, Christian Student Fellowship member and part of IAESTE.
From: Hebron, Ky.
High school: Connor High School
High school activities: She was a varsity cheerleader, Future Business Leaders of America president, Boone County School Board Student Advisory Board member, National Honor Society member, and All-Star Cheerleader.
College major: Chemical Engineering
College activities: She is part of the Scholars in Engineering and Management (SEAM) program.
From: Louisville, Ky.
High school: St. Xavier High School
High school activities: He played varsity football, ran varsity track, was president of the Investment Club and a member of the National Honor Society.
College major: Mechanical Engineering
College activities: He started a UK Investment Club with a couple of friends and joined the Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Formula One Team.