Community: Because Engineering Is a Team Sport

Monday, September 17, 2012

When students enter the College of Engineering, they face a number of challenges, not the least of which is a rigorous academic curriculum. But from the first day on campus, the Men in Engineering Living Learning Community (LLC) helps ease many first-year students into college and community life, and assures them they can succeed at Iowa.

“Only 7.7 per cent of all University of Iowa undergraduates major in engineering,” College of Engineering Director of Admissions and First-Year Experience Jane Dorman says. “If you’re an engineering student, you have challenging homework every day, and it can feel like you are the only person on campus who has to work so hard academically.”

A Living-Learning Community can ease that feeling of isolation by providing a place where students with shared interests can live, study, and socialize together. Following the success of Women in Science and Engineering, which began in 1993, the College decided to provide a place where men in engineering also could benefit from the LLC experience.

Launched in 1998, Men in Engineering began with 25 students on half a floor of Daum Hall. At the end of that year, 24 of the inaugural group were still enrolled in Engineering and tried everything they could to convince the one “outlier” to also remain in school. In addition to Daum Hall, Men in Engineering has been located in a number of residence halls, including Stanley, Burge and now Rienow.

Today more than 200 students in the LLC occupy four floors of Rienow, where they help each other adjust to college life, mentor each other in academics, and connect with faculty and alumni outside the classroom.

“Typically, first-year university students need help understanding and addressing the ‘learning’ aspect of the LLC opportunity,” Dorman says. “Engineering students, however, ‘get’ the ‘learning’ part, but sometimes need help with the ‘living’ side to balance the academic challenges.”

With the help of four Residence Life Assistants and two undergraduate student Program Coordinators, Dorman provides programming for first-year men in engineering that draws them into the LLC, the UI, and the Iowa City community. The residents share movie nights and holiday dinners, meet faculty members who come to the residence hall to talk about their avocations, and engage in friendly competitions, including games and athletic challenges between floors. And for the last severa years, residents have enthusiastically volunteered to help build Habitat for Humanity houses.

The Men in Engineering student programmers produce a newsletter, work with the residents to design a new tee shirt each year, and maintain a FaceBook page.

“Engineering is a team sport,” Dorman says, “and every student can succeed. And students who understand how to work together will do well in the real world of engineering.

“We spent hour upon hour in the study lounge, acting as both student and teacher,” says Alan Zantout, (BSE 2008, MS 2009), who lived in the Men in Engineering LLC as a first-year student and then served as an RA on the floor for the next four years. “And, of course, we had a little fun along the way!” Now an engineer at Ideal Industries, Zantout says that his time at the College of Engineering and living in the LLC transformed him from “’I’ll learn it myself’ to ‘Let’s learn this together’—something that has served me well in my current collaborative work environment.”

Incoming students can sign up for the LLC on their housing application, as soon as they are admitted to Iowa.

While parents often are enthusiastic about the idea, prospective students may hesitate.

“Some of them are afraid their peers in the Men in Engineering LLC will be super-geeky students who stay in darkened dorm rooms staring at a computer 24-7 or that it’s a big social mistake to live with other engineering students,” Dorman says. “We remind students that at Iowa we don’t tend to attract super-nerdy engineers anyway and when we say ‘Iowa is engineering and something more,’ we really mean it. The LLC is an opportunity to meet other interesting students who have a wide range of interests, talents, and goals.”

One student summarized his experience this way: “I was imagining a group of ‘nerds,’ for lack of a better word. But everyone here seems to have the perfect mix of fun and studies. I have no doubt that living here has improved my study skills and my future here at the University.”

In at least one instance, sharing interests, skills, and knowledge proved particularly important. One night when Men in Engineering was located in Burge Hall, water began leaking through the ceilings of several dorm rooms on the LLC floor.

Upon investigation, the engineering students discovered someone in the floor above had attempted to remove a drinking fountain from the wall. Not being engineers, the culprits didn’t understand that one must turn off the water first. There was no water shut-off valve so emergency maintenance was called.

As water continued to pour through the stairwell to the rooms below, the Men in Engineering LLC students used their ingenuity to come up with a solution. They collected Daily Iowan newspapers from their rooms, dragged them to the spewing plumbing and built a channel, successfully diverting the water to a restroom floor drain.

Dorman later applauded the LLC engineering students’ efforts by noting they had saved the day.

“Well actually,” one of the students responded, “we saved Burge Hall.”