Broadening Access to the Sciences > Case Studies > Engineering Academic Support Resources

Engineering Academic Support Resources

Contact Person: Erik Cheever (, Lynne Molter (, and Ann Ruether (

Program Mission

The Engineering Academic Support Program seeks to help engineering students to succeed in their first two years, when almost all attrition occurs. This attrition occurs disproportionately among underrepresented minority and women students.

What is the impetus for the program? What are the goals of the program?

Engineering students at Swarthmore must simultaneously take Engineering, Mathematics and Physics courses in their first year. This is especially difficult for some students because of the wide range in the quality of high school preparation, and because Engineering is historically a profession dominated by white males. The program seeks to help all students who want to pursue engineering to succeed by constructing a tight community with strong learning support.

How is the program structured?

We have an Academic Support Coordinator that facilitates all study sessions. These sessions:

  • are on-site in the engineering building
  • take place five evenings per week; 7-9 PM (adjusted as necessary)
  • offer one-stop shopping for help in Engineering, Physics, Mathematics, & Other
  • have scheduled evening sessions tailored to homework and exam schedules in supported classes
  • provide an inviting, safe, and fun atmosphere; group work encouraged; food provided

The Academic Support Coordinator is often present at these sessions and Wizards (student assistants trained by Academic Support Coordinator) are always present in pairs

The Academic Support Coordinator tracks all students and

  • provides early intervention
  • meets individually with struggling students
  • provides feedback to class instructors and academic advisors

Physics student assistants are also supported by Engineering Academic Support Coordinator

Students from other departments also attend and are supported.

The program provides a comfortable learning environment for new students in the department; helps with integration into larger community of older students, support staff, and faculty. The program has improved retention of both female and underrepresented minority students.

Who was involved in starting and/or who is involved in running the program? What were/are their roles?

The program was originally started by a small group of faculty working to recruit students as peer mentors. As it grew into a much more substantial, and comprehensive program, we hired a full time Academic Resources Coordinator to oversee recruiting and training of the peer mentors (now known as Wizards), to establish and maintain communication with faculty teaching the classes, and to oversee day-to-day operations of the program.

Key steps/missteps

One of the most important keys to the success of the program is having a full time coordinator in place to run the program. The logistics of the program are too time intensive to be handled as an added chore for a faculty member.
The Academic Support Coordinator, working with the Wizards, provided direct feedback to faculty members teaching the supported through regular meetings and often through spontaneous correspondence as the need arises. The Coordinator is also in close contact with the faculty advisors of struggling students. The timely flow of this information to professors is vital in addressing students' needs both inside and outside the classroom.
The benefits of the program to the Wizards themselves has exceeded our expectations. Wizards typically are upper-level engineering majors who have shown an enthusiastic interest in helping other students. This peer-mentoring aspect of the Wizard program has been crucial in reaching out to the underrepresented groups in the engineering field. The close interaction between Wizards and session attendees is essential in making the courses accessible to a broad spectrum of students. The support that the Wizards provide not only reinforce their understanding of the material, but also allow them to practice teaching and intervention skills, while gaining team leadership experience.

How is the program evaluated

The Academic Support Program has become an essential resource in our efforts to increase and retain women and underrepresented minorities in the engineering field. In order to correlate use of the program with grades and retention data, we will have to examine carefully a decade or more of cohort data, which is in progress, but not complete or available at this time. Going forward, we will continue on the same course of tracking student attendance at Wizard sessions, monitoring their progress, and being proactive with them in and out of sessions.

References and notes

The Role of Scientific Literacy in the Liberal Arts Curriculum, L. A. Molter, Swarthmore College, funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, 2001-2004.

Quantitative Reasoning and Problem-Solving Based Learning: A Student Centered Approach, E. A. Cheever, L. A. Molter, and K. A. Renninger, funded by Mellon Tri-Co Forum, 2002.

Retaining Students in Natural Science and Engineering Majors: Understanding the Problem in the Small College, L. A. Molter and K. A. Renninger, Swarthmore College, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, 2007-2009.

Why Students Leave STEM Fields: Development of a Common Survey Tool, R. Koff, Washington University in St. Louis, and L. A. Molter and K. A. Renninger, Swarthmore College, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, 2007-2009.

Development of Predictive Models for Patterns of and Reasons for Retention and Migration in and out of STEM Fields, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, 2010-2012.