Key to the engineering program, director Ronald Ulseth said, is an educational strategy called a "learning community." Now common to humanities programs, learning communities emerged much more recently within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
The learning-community approach is one of many innovative, "inquiry-based" strategies outlined in a new report from the National Science Foundation and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Invention and Impact: Building Excellence in Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education.
"Itasca is a wonderful example of how learning communities nationwide are working to retain science, technology, engineering and mathematics students," said Rosemary R. Haggett, director of the NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR/DUE). "With U.S. enrollments in these fields declining, it's more important than ever to keep every student engaged in learning."
Because Itasca students work in small cohorts, receive intensive personal coaching, study in common areas, socialize together, and even wear the same tie-dyed T-shirts, Ulseth explained, they develop an extraordinary bond with the college, and with each other.
"We're big into ownership and identity," added Ulseth, a 1984 Itasca graduate whose grandparents worked in the local iron and paper industries. "The way I see it, my students are coming from home -- m