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SPRING 2001-02
Volume 45, Number 3


Engineering Tutors: Building Confidence in a Complex New Subject

On Health Care, Research, the Budget, and Old Cap

Open Major Struggles with Decision

Beyond the Varsity: Clubs Yield Opportunities to Enjoy Sports, Games, Martial Arts

Work-Study: State Program Cut, but Federal Funds Continue

Student Drive Succeeds: Pitch That Bottle in the Recycling Bin

Letters, Petitions Result in New Major: Women's Studies

Both Side Are Right

Snow Scene

Parent Times Briefs

Important Numbers

University Calendar

You’ve enrolled in the College of Engineering. You arrive, settle down in an introductory course, and . . .begin to sink. What is all this language? Why can’t I figure out where the professor is heading with this material? How can I stay cool when I’m in a panic?

Lisa Ulrich, left, and Brad flaminioa work with tutor Jacob Wilson, right, in the Engineering tutorial Program office, 2133 Seamans Center.

Since this kind of first-year adjustment problem is not unusual, the college has a solution: a math or engineering student will tutor you. Just drop in to the Tutoring Center in 2133 Seamans Center from 6 to 9 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and free tutors will be available.

Students may request tutoring in Physics I and II, Calculus I and II, Vector Calculus, Engineering I and II, Principles of Chemistry, Differential Equations, Matrix Algebra, Statics, Dynamics, and Circuits. The tutors must have taken these subjects and passed them successfully before they sign up to teach them to others.

The program has grown steadily since it was founded in 1997. In that year, 24 students used the service. In calendar year 2001, 1,070 students were tutored. The number of tutors has grown from five or fewer in 1997 to 42 now. Tutoring was available for only one and one-half hours per night and now is three hours per night for five nights a week.

Frequently, students who come to the center for help have just lost confidence, tutors say.

Jacob Wilson, a junior in mechanical engineering from Elgin, Ill., tutors Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights for a total of 12 hours of work.

If you’re wondering why your student might be intimidated in engineering, here are some midterm questions that he or she may have faced a month or so ago. The first is from Geb Thomas, assistant professor of industrial engineering, who is teaching Engineering II this semester.

“There were two versions of the exam to reduce cheating, but both were effectively the same,” Thomas says. “Most students had trouble with the following problem, which asked them to demonstrate their knowledge of a pointer, which is a construction in C (a programming language) that allows the programmer to refer directly to a location in the computer’s memory.”

Problem 8. Pointer usage (10 points)
Circle each code fragment that would compile, execute, and print a true statement. Note that %p prints a pointer.

(a) int y = 5;
int *yptr;
yptr = &y;
(“The value of y is: %d\n”,*yptr);

(b) int x = 17;
int *xptr = &x;
xptr = xptr + 5;
(“The value of x is: %d\n”,*xptr);

(c) int y = 23;
int *yptr = &y;
(“The address of y is %p\n”, yptr);

(d) int x = 16;
int *xptr = &x;
(“The address of x is %p\n”,&x);

John Robinson, professor of electrical and computer engineering, also teaches Engineering II this semester. Here’s one of the problems he developed for his class. Students were allowed one sheet of notes, but otherwise the exam was closed book. Students had to answer four questions in 50 minutes.

Problem 2. Write a C program that reads 20 numbers from standard input. Positive numbers are to be added together and negative numbers are to be added together separately. Your program is to print out the two totals with suitable labeling.While Robinson included a typical solution, it's too long to print here. Want the solutions to these questions? Ask your engineering student–and hope he or she still remembers! Or you might head for 2133 Seamans Center Sunday through Thursday night, and find a knowledgeable tutor who is willing to help.

“I have a lot of regular customers,” he says. “A few come in because they haven’t adjusted to learning in 300-student classes. Some come in because they’re not sure of themselves yet and are afraid to get the wrong answer.

“They really know the subject but they need reassurance,” Wilson says. “That’s mostly what I do—I push them a little bit.”

One reason students might need a push is the formidable reputation of the College of Engineering. From about 1,000 applications received every year, the college enrolls only about 250 first-year students. Undergraduates enter directly into the college in their first year.

The average ACT score of incoming engineering students has been above the 90th percentile level nationally for many years. Engineering students, who constitute six percent of the total University enrollment, are awarded more than 20 percent of the top first-year student merit scholarships.

So first-year students find themselves in a student body of 1,400—1,100 of them undergraduates. Their fellow students show exceptional academic ability, which can be intimidating if the new student doesn’t realize that acceptance into the college means that he or she is considered to be an exceptional student, too.

Another reason for the students’ temporary problem is that they haven’t studied engineering before. Students have taken English, so transition to a college English major is less difficult. Even a more complex subject like physics is also taught in high school. Engineering, however, is a whole new discipline.

“These students come out of high school and they face a completely new subject with a lot of new concepts,” Wilson says. “That’s hard for everyone to do at first.”

Wilson, a transfer student, says he has a good background in calculus, trigonometry, and other subjects beginning engineers take. He was looking for a work-study job and knew he would like tutoring because he likes to teach. But teaching is not where Wilson is headed.

“I’d like to go into robotics or race car development,” he says.

Gwyneth Wilker, a sophomore engineering student from Oregon, says she joined the Engineering Tutorial Program because she wanted to help people.

“I know firsthand how difficult the classes can be and a little extra help can mean the difference between understanding and confusion,” she says. “I’ve seen people come in for help with every subject we offer tutoring in. Some nights, I spend 10 minutes each with five people answering simple questions, and sometimes I sit down with someone for more than an hour explaining a difficult concept by doing multiple examples.

“However, whether their questions are difficult or simple, it always makes me smile to hear a student go, ‘Oh! That makes sense now!’ ” Wilker says.

In addition to the tutor program, the college recently established a unique Center for Technical Communication, designed to teach students efficient ways to conduct research, gather evidence, and consider the audiences and help them gain confidence as speakers and writers.

Students who use the center’s services already have taken the University’s rhetoric course, which introduces them to effective writing, speaking, and reading strategies.

The Engineering Tutorial Program information and schedule are at

–By Anne Tanner


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