Santa Monica College Expands Engineering Curriculum

Students enrolled in SMC’s STEM Science and Research Initiative can now take advantage of new engineering classes, made possible by a new $6 million grant received by SMC in October from the U.S. Department of Education, to create more opportunities for underrepresented students in STEM.

SMC alum and Cornell University mechanical engineering student Jonah Okike during a research residency at UCLA in 2015 while enrolled in the SMC STEM Science and Research Initiative.

February, 27, 2017

When Angel Mendoza entered Santa Monica College, he was unsure of the direction his education would take him. But with guidance from the SMC STEM Science and Research Initiative, he discovered an unexpected passion for engineering.

“Engineering opens doors to many kinds of projects,” the 23-year old student said. “I don’t want to spend my career sitting in a cubicle. I want to work with my hands, so I’m taking classes to transfer to a four-year college as a mechanical engineering major in the fall.”

A new five-year, $6 million grant received by SMC in October from the U.S. Department of Education has made engineering classes at the college possible for students like Mendoza. Summer engineering workshops are also being planned. Students can look forward to a new Student Design Area—or a “makers space”—where they will build individual projects to get hands-on experience and advance their creative, practical, and professional skills.

STEM and Engineering

Tram Dang, SMC Physics and Engineering Professor, says that the majority of her STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) students have told her they want to go into engineering. But SMC lacked a formal engineering program—until now. “We offer a few classes related to engineering,” says Melanie Bocanegra, SMC Associate Dean of STEM and Equity Initiatives at SMC, “but not a formalized pathway. And that was the impetus behind applying for this grant.”

Professor Dang has already devised coursework for Engineering 1(Introduction to Engineering) to give students an overview of the many different specialties to choose from—electrical, mechanical, structural—and what they entail. Another new course teaches Engineering Graphics and Design, which includes software training in SOLIDWORKS, a program used for Computer Aided Design (CAD).

Both engineering courses are being offered this semester, and a course on electronic circuit analysis with a separate lab component will be introduced this fall. All of the courses being designed will help students meet the standards typically required for transfer as an engineering major.

Building for the Future

In the SMC Science Building, there is a small DIY engineering space with equipment for students who want to build independent projects. One group of students is trying to reverse engineer a drone. Another group, put together by Mendoza from students in Professor Dang’s Physics class, is researching how to design and build a small cube satellite to measure atmospheric glow.

This is exactly the kind of project Professor Dang wants to see in the new Student Design Area. “Engineering is an inherently collaborative field,” she says. “This will be a workspace where students can come and build things. SMC’s Art Department already has a laser cutter; when we add a 3-D printer, they’ll be able to create actual working models.” She also envisions working in tandem with SMC’s Fashion Design program and other departments to design functional objects that also look good, “like the FitBit or Apple Watch.”

“I want to be able to help build instruments used in scientific research,” says Mendoza, “and the makers space will give me the hands-on experience to do that while I learn about different aspects of engineering.”

How STEM Helps

The focus of the $6 million grant is to increase the number of Latino/a, under-represented, and low income students in the STEM program, with an emphasis on engineering. “STEM majors are rigorous,” says Bocanegra, “but it’s important for students to know that it’s totally possible to do well.” To help them succeed, SMC’s STEM program offers counseling, priority enrollment, tutoring, and financial support.

Gabriella Dean, a 20-year-old student preparing to transfer this fall, hopes to design propulsion systems for rockets as a mechanical engineer. “SMC’s STEM Program provided a lot of mentorship—and community,” she says. “These classes can get pretty hard, and there are lots of late nights, so I like that there are people around who understand what I’m going through.”

Dang agrees that STEM classes can be daunting, and says that one aim of the grant is to help expand experiential education. “At SMC, none of us believe that just because you don’t have math skills, you can’t be a STEM major,” she says. “There’s a lot of encouragement in this program, and we’re focusing on learning by application, rather than just lectures and tests.”

Many students working their way through the lower level math classes are now getting As, says Professor Dang, even if they started with Ds.

“STEM-Adjacent”

Bocanegra says that there are a lot of “STEM-adjacent” career opportunities in the marketplace now, especially in engineering. “Employers are not just looking for academic degrees. They want students who have the ability to work in teams, communicate with one another, and bring skill sets to the table. And we have a great community of students doing this in their everyday lives and getting trained in these areas.”

Professor Dang adds, “We don’t have people building circuits anymore because computers and robots do that, but we do need people to design, program, and maintain those computers and robots. And if we teach our students to do this well, we’ll be able to reach out to local tech companies for internships, and maybe even create a vocational program for engineering students.”

SMC’s STEM program is building on its prior achievements. In 2011, SMC received a $5.8 million Department of Education grant for the STEM Science and Research Initiative, which was established in partnership with UCLA. “It’s been incredible to see what we’ve already done,” says Bocanegra. “We’re using everything we learned in the first five years to apply to the next five.”

For more information on the Santa Monica College STEM Science and Research Initiative, please visit www.smc.edu/STEM. Current and upcoming course offerings are available at www.smc.edu/classes.

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