Experiential Learning Drives STEM Leadership at the University of Detroit Mercy

By Dr. Gary Kuleck and Dr. Shuvra Das, University of Detroit Mercy

UDM BUILD Scholar Freshmen in the Research Laboratory (Photo by University of Detroit Mercy)


UDM BUILD Scholar Freshmen in the Research Laboratory (Photo by University of Detroit Mercy)

Urban Jesuit colleges and universities have centuries-long traditions of providing training, education and resources to local communities with less access. This has encouraged students with talent and drive, who are minorities or come from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, to graduate from college and become leaders in professional disciplines in which they have been traditionally underrepresented.

Since its founding in 1877, the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM) has embraced its location within and commitment to Detroit, MI. The UDM community has remained actively engaged in Detroit through public service, undergraduate and professional education, and service learning courses. In recent times, our mission and history have become intertwined with Detroit’s renaissance through community revitalization services and enhanced educational opportunities for STEM professional career preparation. It is in this spirit that we describe ongoing funded projects in the College of Engineering and Science (E&S) that will impact communities in a proud, resurgent Detroit.

Removing the cultural, financial and academic barriers to success from the rigorous training required in STEM disciplines is necessary, but not sufficient to ensure that students complete their undergraduate and graduate education. Engaging students in experiential learning significantly improves retention and graduation rates. Since a close faculty-student interaction is central to UDM’s mission and vision, we have enthusiastically embraced transformational opportunities represented by the National Institutes of Health [NIH] Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity (BUILD) Program. UDM serves as the primary partner in a new consortium with several institutions of higher learning in Detroit (Wayne State University, Marygrove College, and the Wayne County Community College District). In 2014, the Consortium was awarded a $21.2 million NIH BUILD grant to create the ReBUILDetroit Program. This five-year program will increase the number of students from underrepresented groups in biomedical research, and will graduate 500 students with advanced biomedical degrees to enter into a strong, vibrant Southeast Michigan health sciences workforce. ReBUILDetroit will overcome barriers for students through the creation of large inter-campus learning communities; providing intentional mentoring; creating structured, authentic research opportunities for students beginning in their freshman year; and developing a pipeline to and through graduate school. In its first year of existence, 53 BUILD scholars have been engaged with research preparation and will enter laboratories this summer for their first extended research opportunity. 

UDM’s BUILD Student Scholars experience community engagement as part of their Jesuit education. The grant strengthens deep faculty-student interactions in the laboratory and classrooms, and helps faculty become more attuned to working with students of color. Student college acculturation includes 7-weeks of pre-summer programming (e.g. inter-campus student activities, service learning projects, and events that unify incoming freshmen) exposing them to college-life and the rigors of undergraduate research while they engage with faculty mentors. This also initiates year-long, intensive multi-tiered mentoring from students (peer, near-peer), faculty, staff, and successful alumni, who serve as role models and further student engagement. These experiences have been designed to encourage student perseverance on a research career path. Thus far, the program is transforming the campus and student climate. We are excited to witness the students' continued development as they progress in their professional career tracks.

UDM BUILD SCHOLAR FRESHMEN IN THE RESEARCH LABORATORY (PHOTO BY UNIVERSITY OF DETROIT MERCY)


UDM BUILD SCHOLAR FRESHMEN IN THE RESEARCH LABORATORY (PHOTO BY UNIVERSITY OF DETROIT MERCY)

Engineering
UDM’s engineering program, established in 1911, is ranked among the U.S. News and World Report’s top 100 engineering programs from non-Ph.D. granting institutions. Undergraduate majors are offered in Mechanical, Civil, Electrical, Software and Robotics and Mechatronics Systems Engineering (RMSE).

UDM’s engineering program is closely tied to the city, local communities and industries, and attracts students from Detroit and the surrounding Metro area. It serves many first-generation students and participation from women and minorities is above the national average. The engineering program combines a strong mix of theory and practice with adaptability by addressing ever-changing needs. These values are reflected through the interdisciplinary RMSEP, curriculum-wide integration of innovation and entrepreneurship concepts, and mandatory co-op programming.

Robotics and Mechatronics Systems Engineering Program (RMSEP)
Industrial partners have expressed the need for engineers educated in principles and applications of mechatronics and robotics. Mechatronics involves synergistic product design with integration of mechanical devices, smart electronics and optimized control software. Robots are the best examples, but mechatronic applications are common in many sectors ranging from consumer appliances to healthcare and defense.

The 2012 RMSEP launch at UDM culminated longstanding efforts by students and faculty. Key courses were developed through National Science Foundation (NSF) support: UDM faculty received three NSF grants between 1999 and 2003 to create foundational curriculum and infrastructure. These grants led to the development of new courses in Mechatronics and Robotics; robust offerings in pre-college programs; new project implementation; and, of course, RMSEP.

In 2015, RMSEP received an NSF grant to support educating and graduating low-income students (especially women and minorities) into a well-trained STEM workforce. This $600,000 grant, along with UDM scholarships, will fund undergraduate education for 16 students. The students will be mentored by engineering alumni, participate in special cohort-based classes and advising, take company field trips, and participate in co-ops.

Innovation and Entrepreneurship
In 2005, UDM became a founding member of the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network (KEEN), which offers funding for universities to start entrepreneurial / educational programs. There was always a need for entrepreneurship education at UDM; KEEN provided resources to galvanize faculty and administrative action. Since 2005, UDM has received $700,000 from KEEN to spur further development, including a minor and five new courses dealing with service, entrepreneurship, innovation and venture creation.

One example of KEEN-sponsored programming is an engineering senior capstone course at UDM, which involved multi-disciplinary teams designing and delivering devices addressing disabled clients' needs. This program resulted in the development of unique and innovative products for the disabled; First Lady Michelle Obama mentioned this successful program in a 2012 Veteran’s Administration speech.

Engineering Co-ops
One full year of co-op is required of engineering students at UDM; co-ops are extremely valuable to gain on-the-job experience and network for full-time employment. The University's co-op coordinator leverages long-standing employer relationships and, working closely with students, faculty and administrators, ensures engineering students secure appropriate co-op assignments. Student and employer satisfaction level is consistently high.  

We believe that experiential learning in Jesuit education is fundamental for students to develop as professionals with leadership potential.

Dr. Gary Kuleck is Professor and Dean and Dr. Shuvra Das is Mechanical Engineering Professor in the College of Engineering and Science at the University of Detroit Mercy.