Cal Tech, Brown to Offer Future Engineers a Pre-College Prep

A California Institute of Technology professor has a novel idea to keep up to half of students intending to major in tech or engineering in college from dropping out of the program before graduation. Yaser A. Abu-Mostafa, who teachers computer science and electrical engineering at CalTech, took the idea of a course that would teach incoming freshmen the basics of engineering and pitched it to the school’s admissions office.

Admissions officials were overjoyed, and now the class – Learning from Data – is available for free on iTunesU.

“University is a mystery to these students, and they really don’t know what they’re getting into a lot of the time,” said Dr. Abu-Mostafa, whose course ultimately attracted 100,000 subscribers. He estimates that one in 10 were in high school, based on the number of e-mails he received from different age groups.

“The class crystallized their interests,” he said, “and gave them some confidence going into the field.”

CalTech isn’t the only school to detect this need among aspiring college students. Brown University is in the process of developing a whole massive online open source curriculum aimed at high schoolers who hope to enter the school and major in engineering. If the Brown program succeeds, no longer will students interested in pursuing this and other technology-related topics start from scratch. By the time thy make it onto the Brown’s campus they’ll know what to expect, including which engineering specialty to concentrate on and what high school courses to take to get them better prepared.

“This is the kind of innovative leadership that can be a game changer for students,” said Josh Coates, chief executive of Instructure, the software company that provided the platform for Brown’s project. “We all know we need more STEM education, and bridging the gap between college and high school with an open online course is a great way to get more kids into these kinds of fields and more interested in the college experience.”

The 500-person cap for the first course section, which began April 1, was met in December. Teachers have also expressed interest in incorporating the course work into their own classes, Dr. Drexler said.