Engineers transition from high school to college

Mike Randleman

The transition from high school to college can be a difficult one, particularly for engineering students.

However, plenty of resources exist for prospective Cyclones, as well as current students, to be successful at Iowa State.

To set one’s self up for acceptance into the College of Engineering, the formula is fairly transparent, serving to eliminate the anticipation commonly found in college applications.

“As long as they have a 245 RAI [score] or greater, they are directly admitted both to Iowa State University and the College of Engineering,” said Joel Johnson, director of student services at Iowa State.

The RAI alluded to by Johnson is in reference to the Regents Admission Index, a tool utilized to varying extents by the three Iowa Regents schools: Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Iowa.

The index takes into account high school factors including ACT or SAT scores, class rank — if applicable — grade point average and the number of core classes taken.

While a conforming RAI score can assure admittance, ISU advisers urge students to go beyond the minimum standard.

“The requirements and the recommendations we have are different. They [prospective engineering students] are really only required to have three years of math, but we would recommend they have four years,” said Deb Dewall, academic advisor for the college of engineering. 

Dewall said it is also recommended high school students take math during their senior year.

“We like to see them have physics and a year of chemistry and biology if they’re thinking about one of the biological engineering fields,” Dewall said. 

The classroom is not the only way to gain experience in high school or college ranks. Extension programs have long provided exploratory opportunities for K-12 students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.

One program that has gained a national foothold, is Project Lead the Way, a program “where high schools can go through levels of training and offer what are approved coursework at the high school level that exposes students primarily to engineering,” Johnson said.

Johnson said there are training workshops and certifications conducted as part of them, combined with a variety of other types of activities that are geared to engage students both in the state of Iowa, and nationally, into engineering education.

Programs like Project Lead the Way often serve as a stepping-stone for students seeking to major in engineering.

For engineering majors that make their way to Iowa State, a foundation is in place to aid students in being successful.

“The academic advisers in our college are highly skilled at really working with each individual student of matching up in that first semester and beyond with the classes that make the most sense based upon their academic background,” Johnson said.

A common concern often voiced by students upon entrance is that a lack of technical knowledge, such as coding or programming, may hinder them in their coursework, as many high schools lack engineering-focused coursework.

“There are a few students that come in with that programming knowledge. That is the first class that’s usually new material for students. We don’t put them in classes like that in their very first semester unless they’re in the upper group [of RAI scores, high school experience, etc],” Dewall said.

Science and math requirements, both in high school and early in one’s major, are set up to prepare students for more challenging coursework later

“You need that foundation. That’s why our basic programs sort of are foundation courses — they [students] take that first year or so to prepare them for the upper level [coursework]. We try to give them a balanced schedule for them, not just say ‘everybody takes this,’” Dewall said.

Outside of classwork, students are also encouraged to take on leadership roles.

“Employers are looking for things like teamwork and communication and those kinds of things which aren’t the math and science, necessarily, but those soft skills that they’ll need once they graduate and get out there,” Dewall said.

With all the responsibilities successful engineering students are urged to uphold, Johnson shared his impressions of the students he interacts with.

“We have phenomenal students that come into our college and you see that in the leadership that they do the volunteerism that so many of our students do,” Johnson said. “They are highly involved students both in the classroom but also outside of the classroom. I just can’t say enough about the quality of students at Iowa State.”