Minority engineering bridge program persists despite COVID-19

Posted: August 20, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has caused many events and programs to be canceled in 2020. Ohio State’s PREFACE program didn’t want to be one of them.

Established in 1977, the Pre First-year Academic and Career Engagement (PREFACE) Program engages incoming first-year students from diverse backgrounds in a summer-enrichment and engineering-exposure experience that can change the trajectory of their college career.

“We knew our traditional in-person program was not going to be feasible, but with 41 years of student impact, we were steadfast in holding some form of engineering experience for our incoming first-year students,” said Ronald Parker, assistant director of the Minority Engineering Program.

Under normal circumstances, PREFACE begins with a three-week, in-person summer bridge program that shows students the pace and rigor of the college curriculum firsthand, introduces them to faculty as well as university and college resources, and helps students form a peer community. They take classes in applied engineering mathematics, chemistry, engineering problem solving and technical writing. Participants also enroll in autumn and spring seminar courses, both of which offer an in-depth exploration of engineering majors before students choose a path.

With COVID-19 ruling out most in-person gatherings this summer, organizers had to reimagine how the program would look this year in virtual mode.

“We decided to go to a workshop approach to deliver this first-time online experience,” said Parker. “There are still some requirements—homework assignments, engagement and high expectations without the in-person physical and mental intensity. If faced with another online experience, we will increase the academic intensity and work load.”

PREFACE class of 2018
Pictured is the PREFACE Class of 2018. Under normal circumstances, PREFACE begins with a three-week, in-person summer bridge program.

Additionally, Parker said MEP staff will use lessons learned from the 2020 virtual cohort to re-engineer the program, potentially layering in-person and online experiences in an effort to expand its reach.

The program was able to expand its enrollment from 30 to 40 students this summer due to the virtual adjustment. And despite the online format, organizers have made every effort to maintain the sense of community and connection, which has become one of the hallmarks of PREFACE. Students were split into two separate tracks to make it easier to get to know one another, and several courses utilize Zoom breakout rooms, which allow for more one-on-one interaction, collaboration and discussion. Additionally, the program hosted community building events in which participants were introduced to various student organizations, as well as career and networking discussion panels with alumni.

“The support of program sponsor Marathon Petroleum Corporation has been paramount to the success of the in-person to virtual transition,” Parker added.

Despite the change in format this year, the Minority Engineering Program staff’s commitment to preparing incoming students for success has not wavered.

“PREFACE has a mindset,” explained Parker. “We gave each letter in PREFACE an acronym for our engineering ethos. They are perseverance, resilience, efficacy, fortitude, accountability, collaboration and excellence (in effort). We try to ingrain this mindset in the students so they understand that these characteristics provide a better chance of being successful here at Ohio State academically and beyond.”

Ohio State’s PREFACE program is one of the first in the country and has served as a model for hundreds of other bridge programs across the U.S. Since its inception, PREFACE has prepared more than 500 Buckeye engineers to succeed and lead in the workforce and their communities.

“It’s been a blessing to work with young people and help them navigate through their college journey as they develop beyond surviving, but thriving,” said Parker. “Watching the growth of young Buckeye engineers transforming into outstanding professional human beings—that’s been the most rewarding part.”

by Meggie Biss, College of Engineering Communications | biss.11@osu.edu