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UNLV encourages students to ‘do the math’

The new recruiter for UNLV’s engineering college views her role as helping high school students see themselves as scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

If the Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering enrollment numbers are any indication, more UNLV students are envisioning futures in those fields.

The college welcomed about 28 percent more freshmen this year than it did last year. About 526 freshmen chose the college last year, compared with 673 this year, according to UNLV data.

Elisa George, who spent five years teaching in the Clark County School District, started in January as UNLV’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics admission counselor. The college had a graduate student doing recruitment part time but decided someone full time was needed, said Rama Venkat, dean of the college of engineering. Two unnamed donors stepped in to fund the position for two years, after which UNLV will take over, Venkat said.

Venkat said the college wants to encourage local high school students to pick UNLV.

“A lot of our students in Clark County have put up these barriers for themselves,” George said.

“Sometimes all it takes is just showing them a path and helping them get on it.”

George loves teaching but jumped at a shot to reach a wider swath of students. In particular, she’s hoping to empower girls and students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Increasing the number of people going into STEM fields, and diversifying the workforce are concerns nationally.

Women are vastly underrepresented in STEM fields, according to a 2013 report by the U.S. Census Bureau. The report largely attributes the gender gap to not enough women being employed in engineering or computer science: In 2011, women accounted for 13 percent of engineers and 27 percent of computer professionals.

“More people should be able to get into these fields that are stable and high-paying,” George said. “A lot of people think they are so far out of reach. You buckle down, you do the math, and it’s not so hard.”

Colbee Jones, an 18-year-old engineering freshman from Reno, doesn’t understand why more women don’t gravitate toward STEM fields. She has certainly noticed the gender disparity.

All of her friends that are engineers? They’re guys, she said.

“I think it is kind of odd because I think that all throughout public school girls and boys are both exposed to the same amount of math and science,” Jones said. “It is interesting, a lot of the girls — even though they are exposed to it — they don’t choose it as a career.”

Jones said she started considering the field after some engineering students spoke to her high school physics class. A lot of students don’t even realize engineering is an option because not too many people come to high schools and talk about the career, she said.

Choosing a path different from the ones taken by her female friends didn’t scare her, Jones said, because she likes a challenge.

“I think it is kind of cool that I’m in this field that not many other women can say they are a part of,” Jones said. “It’s special.”

Venkat said he couldn’t point to just one catalyst for the uptick in engineering-minded UNLV students, but he praised George’s efforts.

“If she had worked here for a full year, I don’t know what the enrollment would have been,” Venkat said. “This time I think we hit the ball out of the field.”

The national attention on STEM careers has perked up interest, so that has helped, he said. Also, students are fascinated with social media and apps, causing many of them to consider careers in computer science, Venkat said.

Computer science was by far the most popular choice for new engineering students. According to the college’s data, 298 students entering the school this year opted for computer science. Electrical and computer engineering came next with 158, followed by mechanical engineering with 156. The numbers include transfer students.

Enrollment overall also is up, with more than 3,800 freshmen this year compared to 3,751 in 2013, according to UNLV spokeswoman Megan Downs.

George is planning to expand her recruiting efforts to Southern California, going to community colleges and high schools.

Snagging students is a big win, but Venkat is careful to note that the college’s efforts don’t stop there.

“Just because you increase enrollment doesn’t mean much,” Venkat said. “It only matters if they graduate.”

The college is working with the math department to funnel students in need of help into a class taught by an instructor who understands engineering, he said.

About 15 percent of students who enrolled in the college are ready to do what’s required, he said, noting math is the biggest hurdle. About 67 percent of the students are ready for pre-calculus, he said.

George said she looks for a certain level of math skill so the students will survive, but what catches her eye most is a student’s passion for learning.

“If they are really excited about it — even if their math skills are a little behind — they’ll work their math skills until they are where they need to be,” George said.

“It is a demanding program, there is no doubt about it, but it is so worth it when they get to the other side.”

Contact Bethany Barnes at bbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861. Find her on Twitter: @betsbarnes.

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