Inside Purdue Engineering: Engineering Academic Boot Camp

Since its inception in 2005, the Engineering Academic Boot Camp run by the Minority Engineering Program has had nearly 400 participants.

Mia Reynolds is on the other side, now, thriving.

She successfully transitioned through First-Year Engineering into the School of Industrial Engineering and will begin her sophomore year in Purdue University’s College of Engineering in the fall.

But a year ago at this time, she was in the midst of a whirlwind.

Reynolds already had been accepted into the college and, with a nudge from her mom, came to West Lafayette’s campus early in the summer of 2021 to participate in the Engineering Academic Boot Camp. The intention of the program is to ease the transition from a community-friendly high school environment to a global classroom where students may not see others that look like them. In 2020, out of approximately 2,500 incoming first-year engineering students, only 23 identified as African American. Easing the cultural shock while also creating a sense of belonging for historically underrepresented students is established by creating a sense of community early and simulating the rigor of the first semester in Purdue Engineering.

The boot camp, open to all FYE students, accomplishes its goal by crunching a semester’s worth of work into five weeks, offering simulation courses in two of the most difficult first-year classes and, starting with Reynolds’ cohort, nine credit hours in other courses.

Reynolds felt the impact of it all immediately.

“Like most of people that entered the program, most engineers when they went to Purdue, I was pretty confident in myself. I really thought I had it in the bag,” Reynolds said. “Camp was a bit of a wake-up call. I realized there are things I need to work on, and it gave me the opportunity.”

She realized there were habits she needed to develop. She created study plans, something she never had to do in high school. She went out of her way to study to make sure she completed the assignments, which were considerable with the condensed schedule. She went to office hours, making sure to get as much help as she needed. All of it was a new experience.

And, ultimately, a cherished one.

Students in EABC work on research project
Students in EABC work on research projects as part of the program. In 2019, one group focused on go karts. 

So much so that before Year No. 2 started, Reynolds knew where she needed to spend a portion of her summer: On campus, early, as a counselor for the boot camp.

“Boot camp gave me so much, and it provided me with so much valuable insight, experience, friendship and connections that I wanted to pay it forward and give it to another class and make sure they had the same experiences and the same positivity that boot camp brings,” Reynolds said. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

For 18 years, the Engineering Academic Boot Camp (EABC) has been opening eyes of its participants while preparing them for the rigor of life as a Purdue Engineering student. The 2022 cohort, which finished the program Aug. 12, had an all-time, program-high 50 participants. Since 2005, there have been nearly 400. With ongoing support, there’s no indication it’ll slow down, especially considering the impact it has had on the students, the schools, the College and the University.

“It definitely helped,” Reynolds said. “I don’t think anything has compared to the difficulty of boot camp except maybe the last week of my second semester. That might be the only time that came close, just because boot camp is so fast-paced, assignments every week, every class you’re taking is accelerated, so you have so much work, you have so much that you have to study for, there’s never a second and each point of your day is kind of scheduled out.

“Because of that, when it came to the actual semester, it felt a bit easier in comparison. It felt like a weight was taken off my shoulders. It felt really doable, really manageable, like, at least it’s not boot camp. I can do anything."

Getting started

After spending about 18 years in industry focusing on lean manufacturing — maximizing production while simultaneously minimizing waste — transitioning from the automotive industry to academia didn’t seem like a good career move. But when Virginia Booth Womack came to Purdue University in 2004 to run the Minority Engineering Program (MEP), her attitude about the opportunity shifted.

Reviewing 10 years of disaggregated student performance data from pre-college course preparation, college applications, enrollment trends, degrees awarded and graduation rates provided by the Enrollment Management Team, Booth Womack had an epiphanic moment. In the years invested in solving manufacturing engineering problems, what a rewarding opportunity it would be to use engineering problem-solving methods to address one of the nation's most critical problems, student access and success in engineering. Especially as it relates to minoritized and racialized students, this would be the job of a lifetime.

Virginia Booth Womack speaking to students at EABC
Virginia Booth Womack, director of the Minority Engineering Program, started EABC in 2005.

The data provided on student performance revealed persistent achievement gaps between minoritized students and the total engineering cohort. Using a baseline average from 2000-2004 data, the first-semester grade point average for incoming underrepresented engineering students lagged the total first-semester engineering cohort by .64 points, Booth Womack said. Similarly, the first-year retention rate for first-year underrepresented engineering students lagged the first-year engineering cohort by 11 percentage points. By comparison, in 2020, for both groups, the gap in first-semester performance was .10 points (and both groups had grade point averages above a 3.0). For first-year retention rates, however, the underrepresented population's first-year retention rate exceeded the total First-Year Engineering cohort by 1 percentage point (and both groups were over 90%). This was an historic moment, and it was achieved during COVID-19.

“There’s a lot of research on what it means to transition to a new environment, especially for students that have been historically minoritized,” she said. “Here, we’re talking about African-American, Native American, and Hispanic American students. There are cultural needs for minoritized students that are invisible to the dominant culture, and if unaddressed, can negatively impact student success and prevent Purdue University from achieving its core values: Integrity, Respect, Honor, Inclusion, Innovation and Growth. All these values require domestic and international diversity. For Purdue to move the world forward, to make the next giant leap, all cultures must be involved. Inclusion may open the door and allow minoritized students to enter the halls of higher learning but belonging emphasizes the essentiality of including cross-cultural intellectual capital to achieve our mission as a Land Grant institution. Making a smooth transition and knowing that I belong and can be successful at a university that invites the competition of some of the world’s best students is what the boot camp was designed to do.

“What does it mean to belong? How do we bring students here early and overcome the fear of not fitting, not belonging? Finding a place to fit is a need for every student but when race, gender or ethnic identity becomes an intentional or unintentional barrier to access, the weight of exclusion is multiplied. I understand the feeling and so do others, but a focused team across the university is required to understand and address minoritized student discomfort and to create programs that may mitigate some of that.”

One way to attack achievement gaps is incorporating programs designed to meet the access and success challenges for prospective students.

Booth Womack visited a handful of peer institutions to learn about bridge programs they offered — few are alike, catering to specific institutional goals — and she returned to Purdue, armed with more data, and formed the outline of MEP’s program. Although MEP’s programs are open to all, students in the Engineering Academic Boot Camp would meet other incoming first-year students and experience a learning community framework where all participants live in the same residence hall, take the same classes and participate in teams in a rigorous team project. Students would also be exposed to gateway courses, specifically calculus and chemistry, to assess how their stellar performance in high school correlates to one of the most rigorous academic environments in the country.  

Booth Womack identified gateway courses from historical data for freshmen performance by class. She quickly noticed a gap in Calculus I between international students and domestic students within the college. One snapshot of first semester performance in Math 161 showed a 3.8 GPA average for international students versus a 2.5 GPA average for domestic students for that cohort year. With Math 161 being a five-credit course, a poor grade could impact the trajectory of the first-year experience, the retention rate and the decision to persist in engineering. That made it a logical course to simulate for the boot camp.

“We’re competing in a global classroom,” she said. “We are producing world-class engineers because our students are being sharpened by some of the brightest minds in the world, and I think that’s a great thing to say. We need to prepare our domestic students across the board to compete. If you end up with a 3.5 GPA at Purdue, you have literally proven yourself as one of the best engineering students in the world, because of the demographics we have. That’s what makes Purdue’s (bridge) program unique because it’s catered to address that global pressure.”

The boot camp has evolved since its inception in 2005.

After tour of flex lab, students gathered for a group photo
EABC participants visit labs and take tours of campus.

In the first several years of the program, the specific corporate funding required the program be STEM-based instead of solely engineering. Having students across science, technology and engineering staying in the same dorm but not taking the same classes or having the same rigorous experience — engineering homework isn’t necessarily on par with other majors, for example — led to some engineering retention issues. To address that, in 2008, the engineering students were separated, staying on their own floor and rooming with other engineers and attending the same classes and the same study hall. Essentially, the boot camp established a learning community. (It has since been formally recognized as such.)

That learning community was key to recovery from that initial dip, Booth Womack said, and the data has only improved since.

In 2013, the boot camp cohort outperformed the College of Engineering for the first time, Booth Womack said.

As of 2020, the first-semester performance of underrepresented students was a 3.1 GPA to the total cohort of 3.2, and the retention rate for the boot camp cohort was 95 percent.

The boot camp made a considerable adjustment in 2021. In connection with Purdue’s Early Start program and with financial support from the Board of Trustees’ Equity Task Force, the boot camp started offering nine credit hours, a move that Booth Womack said “changes the game completely.” Students take for-credit courses in English, communication, research and Vertically Integrated Projects — all allowing an opportunity to get a leg-up on incoming freshmen by entering the fall with, at times, a significant GPA. In 2021, 20 of the 35 students in the EABC cohort had 4.0 GPAs. The group’s average was 3.87.

The latest cohort’s size was nearly twice as large as previous groups, mostly because of increased funding, both from corporate sponsorships (Banjo Corporation, Dana Incorporated and Duke Energy) and Purdue. And yet, the cohort could have been bigger — more underrepresented students were admitted to Purdue Engineering — had even more funding been available. But Booth Womack has been pleased with the buy-in from department heads within the College of Engineering — many sponsor students in EABC — and the way the college has embraced the program.

“Getting that belongingness within the college, I think is the beauty of what a bridge program does. It’s not just for the student. It’s for the institution. It’s for the major,” she said. “Not only are you matriculating the student into the college but you create a vertically integrate-able experience for the faculty, the student and the college. In essence, the whole College of Engineering is embracing you."

Experiencing the rigor

Jackson Liner grew up wanting to attend Purdue, following in his father’s footsteps.

That intimate connection is why Liner attended other MEP camps (Summer Engineering Workshop and Pre-Freshman and Cooperative Education), starting in ninth grade. Those were only weeklong programs designed to introduce young students to engineering and to Purdue Engineering specifically, but they accomplished their directive: Liner’s interest in engineering was strengthened by attending those camps, he said.

Same goes for fellow 2022 cohort member Ellis Sanders, whose first MEP camp was PREFACE. After his first year in that program, “I almost immediately knew this school was for me,” he said.

After Liner and Sanders were accepted to the university, attending the boot camp made logical sense. They wanted to be ultimately prepared for the challenges they knew they’d face as a first-year student.

The boot camp didn’t disappoint.

Jackson Liner working
Jackson Liner (middle) was in the 2022 cohort for EABC. 

One thing was clear immediately: College is nothing like high school, from the study habits that must be employed to the way exams are structured.

The academic workload was intense — naturally, as it’s a whole semester crammed into five weeks — and Sanders said the simulated calc and chemistry courses were much harder than the for-credit offerings. Considering those are “notoriously hard, weed-out first-engineering courses,” it is a blessing for EABC participants to take those without there being any real stakes, Reynolds said.

How students fare in those simulation courses is another teaching point of the program, Booth Womack said.

She recalled how one student years ago came to her after getting a 68 percent on a chemistry test, lamenting how disappointed he was and how uncommon it was for him to get such a grade. Few admitted students have ever gotten a B, let alone a C. Booth Womack asked him what the average was for the class. He later found out it was only 48 percent — and he’d “aced” the exam. Navigating those kinds of results and seeing how students recover before their first semester is an invaluable learning experience.

“It makes me feel very confident about the fall year. If I can conquer these classes within five weeks, I can definitely hold my own for the whole semester,” Sanders said.

Liner said the workload consistently had him awake studying or doing homework until 1 a.m., and he rarely got more than six hours of sleep per night.

“The whole boot camp is not a cakewalk,” said Liner, who intended to major in mechanical engineering. “But it’s truly rewarding. It’s definitely boosted my confidence because I’m thinking if I can do this, I definitely can tackle regular college. This is faster paced. I have shorter time spans. We’re learning stuff back-to-back-to-back. I really think I’ll be a lot more prepared for college than I would have if I didn’t do this, so I think it’s been good for me in that sense.”

Liner never was alone in the grind, and one could argue that’s where the true value of the program lies.

Building community

Sanders admits his motivation for participating in EABC was to learn more about classes and to get acclimated to campus. But that’s not the final takeaway, after experiencing the program.

“The people are what make it for me. I love everyone,” he said. “There’s not a lot of us, so being in this program has exposed me to people who do look like me, and I’ve made a ton of bonds and relationships with these people. I see that as an opportunity to form study groups. We’re all in it together. It’s very nice to have a little community that I can rely on.”

That seems to be the general consensus from participants.

EABC students in a group
Student who participate in the boot camp often find themselves bonded -- some even calling it a "family" environment. 

Liner said he grew up in mostly white settings, so having something like EABC was “essential” to not only build confidence and develop a good support system but also have friends and be able to build them up, just like they do for him.

“We’re really do support each other. We’re like family almost,” he said. “We do (everything) together. It’s called a boot camp, so it’s portrayed as all just rigorous work. We do have bonding time. There are fun aspects of it. Even though I do homework until 1, I still hang out with my friends. We go to the gym sometimes. We’ll go out to eat. We’ll have dinners together. Occasionally, we’ll just go out and explore the campus. There are really fun things you can do.

“It’s been a really good bonding experience for all of us. I really do think we’ll all stay close once we come into the school year and have a lot more people who don’t look like us come in because we’ll have each other’s backs.”

Looking back, Reynolds is convinced one of the reasons she transitioned so well in her first year at Purdue is because of the relationships she made during boot camp.

Students laughing
EABC is much more than a rigorous academic program, it offers students a community.

Because members of the cohort took the same FYE classes, every night, they’d study together and do homework together. If one was struggling, that was OK: There was an “automatic pool” of 35 people waiting to help. The group chat formed in EABC remained incredibly active throughout freshman year, Reynolds said, and she considers some of her best friends at Purdue ones she met in boot camp.

Those relationships continued to build in Year 1 through an MEP seminar course for credit, through the learning community. Once a week, students came together, and the support system was strong.

“It was a nice way to destress after a long week, and it was something I could really depend on,” Reynolds said. “It was kind of like coming home to family once a week.”