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Graduate Summer Bridge Program: Building Community and Preparedness for Success among Engineering Graduate Students

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Issues in Academic Integrity and the Value of Portfolios, Case Studies, and Supportive Programs

Tagged Division

Graduate Studies

Tagged Topic


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Paper Authors


Catherine T. Amelink Virginia Tech

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Dr. Amelink is Director of Graduate Programs and Assessment in the College of Engineering, Virginia Tech. She is also an affiliate faculty member in the Departments of Engineering Education and Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Virginia Tech.

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Benjamin David Lutz Virginia Tech Orcid 16x16

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Ben Lutz is a PhD student in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. His research interests include design teaching and learning, mentoring in design and project work, student experiences in engineering design, the transition from engineering school into the workplace, and also efforts for inclusion and diversity within engineering. His current work is in related understanding how students describe their own learning in engineering, and how that learning supports transfer of learning from school into professional practice as well as exploring students' conceptions of diversity and its importance within engineering fields.

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Marvin K. Karugarama Virginia Tech


John J. Lesko Virginia Tech

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Jack serves as the Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Studies in VT’s College of Engineering, Professor of Engineering Mechanics, and is a cofounder of PowerHub Systems. Through this startup experience, Jack has initiated problem based learning pilot programs enabled through interdisciplinary experiences, in engineering education and entrepreneurial training (e.g. The StartUp Class). Jack is also a Co-PI for the NSF I-Corps Mid Atlantic Regional Node (DC I-Corps) and is an instructor for both the National and Regional training programs guiding technical professionals through the Lean Startup approach. Jack serves on the Executive Board for the GEM National Consortium and on the Boards of Directors for The Commonwealth Center Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM) and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Center.

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The transition to a graduate program presents numerous challenges as students must navigate a new institution, lifestyle, and culture. Incoming graduate students are confronted with challenges such as finding an advisor, negotiating funding, working in a new research setting, and establishing a record of scholarship, all while successfully completing coursework. Research has shown that this transition can be even more difficult for underrepresented groups (e.g., females, racial/ethnic minorities). These challenges can in turn lead to feelings of isolation that negatively impact these students’ transition to graduate school and ultimately their retention and progress to degree. One approach to addressing these challenges is a bridge program, which typically occurs in the summer before the beginning of the academic year; students attend an abbreviated version of courses they will be taking in the fall, with goals related to acclimation to university culture and familiarity with coursework, resources, and specific elements of graduate student life that are likely to be unfamiliar.

While bridge programs are frequently employed at the undergraduate level, there are fewer examples at the graduate level, especially in engineering. At a large, public, mid-Atlantic university (referred to Public Mid-Atlantic University [PAMU] for this study), current under-represented engineering graduate students identified key areas where graduate students new to the university (i.e., those matriculating from an undergraduate program elsewhere) are disadvantaged and need further support. Through personal reflection and discussion with faculty members, participants identified three key challenges: 1) a lack of coordinated faculty connections and research experiences within faculty members’ labs, including the opportunities to see several different project opportunities and working environments; 2) instructors that assume first year graduate students have been taught fundamental concepts in the same way that matriculating PAMU engineering undergraduates would be taught; and 3) fragmented opportunities to build community with other underrepresented students. To address these challenges, a pilot graduate summer bridge program was designed and implemented in the summer of 2015 for incoming engineering graduate students at PAMU. Academic activities were used to refresh and advance students’ understanding of key disciplinary concepts, and lab rotations were used as a way to create networking opportunities.

This paper describes the program development and subsequent qualitative evaluation findings gathered from participant interviews. During semi-structured interviews, students discussed the extent to which the program addressed the three intended goals – i.e. to 1) increase underrepresented students’ knowledge about university and college resources, 2) provide with an introduction to faculty and current research projects, and 3) create an understanding of foundational concepts and how they are taught. Preliminary findings suggest that through participation in the summer bridge program, students improved their understanding of graduate school course work, created a social and professional network across the college, and perceived a sense of community and support that has aided their transition to graduate school.

Amelink, C. T., & Lutz, B. D., & Karugarama, M. K., & Lesko, J. J. (2016, June), Graduate Summer Bridge Program: Building Community and Preparedness for Success among Engineering Graduate Students Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25419

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