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The Freshman

Santa Fe Community College has a plan for reversing first-year student dropout rates—but can a local institution overcome a national epidemic?

April 6, 2011, 1:00 am

SFCC assistant professor Daniel Kilpatric says a course that shortens the length of time students spend in basic math classes will help keep students engaged.
Credits: Alexa Schirtzinger

For some faculty members at SFCC, the problems inherent in the developmental coursework system were already apparent—and they’ve already devised ways to correct them.

Computer and Information Technologies Chairwoman Phyllis Baca—whose “overarching goal,” she says, is to double the number of engineers in New Mexico with an emphasis on under-represented minorities in the field—has spent the last four years creating what she calls “multiple entries and exits” in SFCC’s engineering program.

The goal, she says, is to widen career fields—so that instead of attending school for years to receive a bachelor’s or master’s degree in engineering, a student can earn a certificate in computer-aided drafting or an associate’s degree in applied science.

“Life does happen,” Baca explains. “Even that one kid who’s so focused on doing the bachelor’s [degree], life might happen to him, and then suddenly they need a certificate; they just need to get out and start making money.”

Baca says widening students’ options also benefits the school.

“It’s just such a ripple effect because the kids strive for that higher goal—engineering—but they have so many outlets and inlets that we’re able to start filling our other programs,” Baca says. By providing achievable goals, she says, she’s seen calculus and computer courses fill up in unprecedented numbers.

“I’m in total, total shock,” Baca says. “The first year I came, there was one student in one engineering class, and they were thinking of closing the program.”

This year, she says, between 12 and 16 students will graduate with associate’s degrees in engineering—which is a boon not just to them, she notes, but also to fomenting a high-tech sector in New Mexico.

Baca rattles off a list of what she’s actually doing to implement that change—paid summer field studies, weekend field trips, conferences. But perhaps most importantly, Baca has developed a first-year course without prerequisites, so students have a chance to try their hand at engineering from the outset.

Kilpatric, too, has already worked to implement aspects of SFCC’s planned First Year Experience—in the form of a course that compresses his general math and pre-algebra classes into a single semester. The product, he says, will allow students to knock out their developmental math requirements in a single semester, rather than having to finish one course before they start another.

Kilpatric sees that as part of his job. “Until we get a program developed,” he says, “we kind of are the first year experience.”

Still, he says, piecemeal faculty efforts are not enough.

“We try to do a lot of things to be supportive,” Kilpatric says, “but without an overreaching program that kind of connects between the classes, it’s hard to be that effective in terms of really creating that experience for the students where they feel part of the community and they feel that they know what to expect and what’s going to be expected of them.”
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