Engineering classroom at De Montfort University, students listening to a presentation
Annual NTF Symposia

Addressing the academic needs of engineering students from diverse backgrounds

Dr Anna Strzelecka, Dr F. Farukh, Mr Thomas Skinner, De Montfort University 

Students and staff in the School of Engineering and Sustainable Development at De Montfort University come from a diverse range of backgrounds and qualifications. The majority of them come from minoritised groups, i.e. Black, Asian and minority ethnic, from disadvantaged backgrounds, the first generation studying for a university degree, with different beliefs, cultures and diverse gender identity and sexuality. However, students from these groups are underrepresented in high profile employment. These students come from a diverse range of backgrounds and qualifications and often struggle with their performance which affects their confidence.  

We have noticed that students that are struggling often do not reach out to their lecturers or tutors, but rather to their peers. Often, these peers are not necessarily well-informed themselves, and they might offer bad advice. Therefore, as a part of the Diversity Impact Programme offered by the Royal Academy of Engineering, we established the Engineering Science Learning Centre (ESLC) with consultation with students, run by students for students. The ESLC aims to mitigate the mathematical and engineering knowledge gap among students from minority groups and their peers. The ESLC also provides structured support by the senior peers, which help them to revise and practice their skills.  

In the planning process in May 2022, we had the following assumptions about the centre:  

– A placement student will run the centre   

– There will be a number of Teaching Assistants supporting certain areas  

– Part time staff will support all students and run weekly workshops.  

In June 2022 we finished recruitment of the placement student and the teaching assistants. As a part of the interview process all applicants had to run a micro teaching session in the area they wanted to support, i.e. mathematics, mechanical principles, electrical and electronic principles as well as Computer Aided Design and programming.   

When the ESLC started running it also focused on coursework writing, teamwork and management as well as Microsoft skills. The ELSC offered weekly timetable sessions split unto theoretical and practical, drop-in sessions, Simplified module notes for each module and online interactive testing via VLE. They also surveyed students to understand their needs and met weekly with Teaching Assistants to clarify the project.  

However, we quickly realised that students are not keen on surveys in general. Additionally, if something is not visible in their timetable, they are reluctant to attend. Furthermore, although the Teaching Assistants were good in the areas they selected, not all of them were able to answer every question asked.   

Therefore, all students working in ESLC started supporting timetabled modules’ seminar/practical sessions. They started offering a booking system in which students can book a meeting with specific teaching assistant or specific area.   

The main lessons learned are that gaining students’ confidence and trust takes time. It is easier to reach students when working with student societies and via timetabled sessions. The recruitment of teaching assistants also needs to be amended to check how they can explain topics to a range of students from different backgrounds.   

This article summarises a presentation given at the  Association of National Teaching Fellows annual symposium.

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