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What Stanford Engineering can learn from the CS department

Since joining the core team of Stanford’s First Generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP), I’ve been able to learn a great deal regarding the academic interests of FLI students on campus and how they change from frosh fall to senior spring. One of the main projects I worked on this fall entailed setting up a sibling program that matched FLI frosh with other sophomores, juniors and seniors that are part of the FLI community. What stood out to me was the difficulty of matching students with regards to academic interests – particularly within the engineering field. While many of the incoming frosh have interests related to mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, etc, it was difficult to find sophomore, junior and/or senior counterparts majoring in these areas. Having been part of a myriad of programs related to STEM subjects within high school, I knew this interest in engineering, shared by incoming members of the Stanford FLI community, was genuine. And I wondered why this curiosity seemed to diminish heavily as students navigated undergraduate life at Stanford.

Don’t get me wrong – for many FLI students, seeing the diversity of academic possibilities in the humanities – particularly related to communities and issues they are passionate about – is a perfect example of using Stanford as a tool to find and circle in on one’s academic passions. But that still leaves questions regarding why Stanford’s electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and chemical engineering majors have a comparably low makeup of FLI students as compared to the rest of the student body.

Perhaps this issue can be shown by the makeup of many of my classes this year. As a prospective electrical engineering major, I’m currently taking/have taken CS 106B, CS 107, ENGR 40M (the “intro” class for electrical engineering), CME 102 and two other core EE classes. Within CS 106B and 107, the makeup of the class is diverse in background and experience. I see many students from the FLI community during lecture and the class is taught in a way that is focused on the logic behind coding – using terminology and examples that can be understood by anyone with an interest in problem solving. And while the curve these past two quarters has been made more difficult from the influx of frosh with prior coding experience, I’ve never felt like I’ve had to work particularly harder to feel included in the class and projects. Walking into my first ENGR 40M lab, I quickly realized I was the only student who had no soldering experience, let alone previous knowledge of constructing and modeling circuits. Most of the students in the class had a decent knowledge of coding, Arduino and possibly came from a technical or specialized high school. I found that many of the concepts I needed in order to succeed in the class were things I had to learn on my own – oftentimes not knowing where to start in terms of looking for information. I spent much of the first half of the quarter routinely frustrated by the pace of the class and the material being taught or not taught.

This experience is not unique. As I checked the course reviews for ENGR 40M and other core electrical engineering classes on Carta, I found two polarizing perspectives towards these classes. Many students insisted that said class was unnecessary or focused on material for which they had prior knowledge. However, there were also a number of frustrated reviews centering on professors that would focus only on the tangents related to the material being taught (rather than the material itself), unhelpful office hours and a lack of collaboration between students. It seems as though you either completely understand the material, or are left keeping your head above water teaching yourself “rudimentary” concepts. In contrast, Stanford’s CS core classes were seen as a collaborative environment. Students from all backgrounds worked to solve problems heavy on logical thinking rather than prior experience in a particular area. Whether you came from a high school with no engineering background or had extensive experience coding, the projects or PSETs you were given required work and collaboration from everyone. This is an experience I see from many from my FLI friends at MIT – one where the classes may not be easy, but the way the material is taught creates a sense of mutual struggle and collaboration that challenges every student.

Stanford’s issue regarding the electrical engineering core is something I have also seen echoed by both the chemical engineering and mechanical engineering fields. I do believe that Stanford does an amazing job recruiting scientific, mathematical and engineering talent from underrepresented communities. I also think the ACE program for the CME series is invaluable for students who did not have a strong math background coming into college. But if Stanford wants to increase the accessibility of its engineering majors to the FLI community, work must be done to reform the way many of the core classes function within departments. While I can’t speak from experience for juniors and seniors, once engineering students find success in the engineering or CS core classes, they often feel like they are on a level playing field – regardless of background – as they tackle the more specialized elective classes for their majors. This makes sophomore year a critical time for students as they begin tackling the technical core engineering classes and choose their major. For many FLI students, their experience in these classes can be taken as what they will be bound to experience within industry or after graduation. And when you feel as though your rest of the class is light years ahead of you, it’s hard to believe that your next three years in this major will be enriching rather than humiliating.

Sophomore year is a critical time for undergraduates here on campus – yet is often one of the times most overlooked by faculty. And for many FLI students studying engineering, a sense of loneliness often accompanies them as they navigate core classes and face a constant uphill battle acquiring the knowledge that makes them capable of asking the right questions in class or in office hours. And while I wish I could assure everyone that the journey gets easier, I too do not know, but can only hope for the best.

—Martin Altenburg ‘21

Contact Martin Altenburg at altenbur ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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