In 2004, WMU’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences was awarded it’s first STEM Talent Expansion Program (STEP) grant from the National Science Foundation to help promote student success and improve graduation rates of engineering students. In the intervening years, the STEP program at WMU has grown and continues to be a positive support system for students at CEAS.
One of the many ways STEP supports engineering students is through free academic assistance available in any of three Student Success Centers – one available during the daytime in Floyd Hall and two evening locations in residence halls on main campus, French Hall and Eldridge Hall (which is also the location of the engineering living-learning community). During the 2018-2019 academic year, the Student Success Centers saw visits from 641 individual students across their three locations, an increase from previous years. Many of the students found the tutoring so helpful, they returned multiple times, for a total of over 3500 visits during the course of the year.
STEP employs around 20 student tutors who use their time and experience in engineering, math, and science courses to help their fellow students. These content tutors can help cover information from early-level math courses like Algebra 2, all the way through several 4000-level engineering and computer science courses. If students need assistance with courses that aren’t covered by one of the content tutors, the STEP director works with both the tutors and the student in need to find new tutors or explore other academic success strategies, such as setting up a study group with other students in the class.
The tutors also help lead by example when it comes to these other academic success strategies. They’re not expected to always know the right answer right away, but they’re expected to be honest when they don’t know, to ask their fellow tutors for help, and to work through the problems together when it’s appropriate – all crucial skills for doing well in class, but also for their lives after college. When working with students who need assistance, the tutors focus on guiding them through the critical thinking and problem solving skills so they arrive to their own conclusion.
Linsday Gubow, a senior Chemical Engineering student, has been a content tutor for STEP for two years. She enjoys the mutually beneficial aspects of tutoring. “One of the best ways to solidify what you’ve learned is to teach it to others. Tutoring is a win-win situation. They get the help they need and I get to solidify what I’ve learned,” she said.
Content Tutors act as mentors at times, offering suggestions for test- and note-taking habits and study skills. While the tutors help students with short-term goals like understanding and completing individual assignments, the Student Success Center’s central mission is to help students become independent learners who know, understand, and apply their own individual learning processes.
Ultimately, the way the Student Success Centers (and the STEP program) meets this goal is through connection. By connecting with the tutors, their future colleagues, engineering students are able to experience many different learning styles, varieties of note-taking and time management skills, and a range of study habits and, in doing so, learn which styles work best for them. They become more comfortable asking for help when they need it, and grow more confident in their own abilities. By connecting with their fellow students, the tutors gain valuable leadership experience and deepen their own knowledge of the concepts they’ll use in their engineering careers. The students who take advantage of the Student Success Centers, whether as tutors or as students who go there for help, not only tend to do better in their classes. They also get one more opportunity to develop the skills that will help them in their lives as alumni of WMU.
Alex Dunham, a transfer student in mechanical engineering and tutor for the STEP Program says, “It’s literally the gift that keeps on giving.”