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$650,000 grant helps Spokane Falls Community College attract women, minorities to engineering program

UPDATED: Wed., Dec. 20, 2017

An engineering degree opens the door to amazing careers, Mark Gorski often tells his students.

“It’s such a broad field. Everything designed and used by people starts with an engineer,” the Spokane Falls Community College instructor says.

But despite the wide array of job opportunities, Gorski usually sees one type of student taking engineering-track math, physics and chemistry classes at SFCC.

“They’re all white guys, to be blunt,” he said.

With the help of a $650,000 National Science Foundation grant, SFCC aims to change that.

The five-year grant will pay for tuition, books and mentoring for 36 academically motivated, but low-income students. Attracting women, minorities and students from rural areas to engineering is the grant’s focus.

Eighty-eight percent of SFCC students studying engineering are men, according to data from 2010 to 2015. Seventy-seven percent identified as Caucasian.

“The scholarships are for students who are strong academically, but they may not have considered engineering,” Gorski said. “Maybe they didn’t get to calculus in high school.”

At any given time, 50 to 75 students are in the two-year program. They study calculus, physics, chemistry and basic engineering before transferring to a four-year school to finish their degree.

“For the first two years, all the foundational courses are the same,” said Jim Brady, SFCC’s dean of computing, math and science. In the junior year, students start to specialize in fields such as civil, mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering.

SFCC will work with high school counselors and through other programs to recruit prospective students.

The first 12 scholarships will be awarded for the fall of 2018. Each scholarship recipient will be assigned to an adviser who will mentor them for the full two years.

Community colleges attract nontraditional students, such as veterans, older students and people with families. They tend to have higher dropout rates than other students, Gorski said. By providing additional support and mentoring, SFCC hopes to increase student retention rates.

“We’re putting increasing focus not just on recruiting students, but on graduating students,” said Brady, the dean.

To keep first-year students motivated while they’re plugging away at math and science, scholarship recipients will be assigned to a yearlong robotics design project. They’ll work in teams under the tutelage of an Eastern Washington University junior or senior engineering student.

“We want to remind them that they’re not just taking calculus, physics and chemistry,” Gorski said. “Someday, they’ll be engineers.”

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