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Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture Coffee Gift

Transforming gifts

A little coffee invigorates engineering education

For WSU Today, by Tina Hilding, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture
Photos of the Dana Hall student study lounge by Helen Thompson, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture

Can coffee change a student’s life? Can it increase success and retention of students in challenging engineering majors?

At least one company believes it is helping students succeed through a $3,500 gift of coffee to the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture (VCEA).

“Free coffee is a nice thing that students appreciate, especially when money is tight,” said Mark Johnson, an assistant project manager with engineering and construction firm Bechtel. The company provided a year’s worth of coffee for students using the popular study and tutoring rooms in Dana Hall.

Impromptu tutoring, peer support

Three years ago, the college opened the rooms for a student study lounge and occasionally provided a pot of coffee. Since then, the popularity of the study area has grown – along with coffee consumption.

“By providing the coffee and this space, we’re giving a place for students to build their life around their studies and around our engineering community,” saidRobert Olsen, associate dean of undergraduate and student services in Voiland College.

The college provides 12-16 pots of coffee a day. An average of 20-30 students is in the rooms at all hours; as finals approach, as many as 50 students may be there. Tutoring, which used to be provided 35 hours a week, now stretches from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Throughout the semester, white boards are full of equations. Books are sprawled across tables. Occasionally, part of the room is “reserved,” like the time a group of civil engineering students was working on a highway project on the study area tables.

Or students walk in and ask, “Has anyone taken thermodynamics?” and an impromptu study group or tutoring session begins.

Students, including women students, feel safe coming to the study rooms during the evenings, said Olsen.

The learning that goes on here might not be easily measured, he said, but it’s fairly obvious to anyone who walks by.

Community of scholars

Julee Trump came to WSU as a transfer student in fall 2008. While she had been a good student, she met her first big stumbling block in her differential equations course.

“The class was killing me,” she said.

She came to the study rooms in search of tutoring provided by the college. She received help in differential equations and, later, dynamics. But she also found students who were interested in studying.

“Most of my friends came from there – the whole bunch, really,” she said.

Trump graduated from WSU in spring 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. She is working on her master’s degree. Her grades in differential equations and dynamics were “a lot better than they would have been,” she said with a grin.

Donor benefits too

Johnson hopes the coffee gift helps students become more engaged in their studies – and more aware of Bechtel, so they might become interested in seeking opportunities with the company. Although Bechtel is one of the top engineering and construction firms in the world and executes many complex projects across the globe, “many students don’t know about us. It’s the name of our client that goes on our finished products, not our name,” he said.

“I think Bechtel is going to get their bang for their buck,” Olsen said.

Since the rooms opened three years ago, retention of freshmen and sophomores in the challenging engineering majors has been increasing.

“This is an essential part of an experience-enhanced education and significantly contributes to student successes both in the classroom and later in the workplace,” Olsen said.

But, is it really the free coffee?

Johnson, who graduated from WSU in 1991, said he remembers when he and his office mate shared a graduate student office, and neither liked to buy the coffee.

“It was probably $6, but you would much rather spend that money on something else,” he said.

“This affects a lot of people, and we are grateful to Bechtel for their generosity,” said Olsen.

The college is looking for additional support for the undergraduate student center to cover operating costs, including tutoring. For information, contact Devon Aderson, Senior Director of Development for the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, at 509-335-2197 or danders@wsu.edu.