Connecting Online: UCLA Engineering Launches Virtual Tutoring Program to Boost Declining Interest in Math, Science Among High Schoolers

By M. Abraham

In an effort to boost declining interest in math and science among U.S. students, UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science is launching an innovative pilot tutoring program called the Engineering and Science Corps. Unlike conventional tutoring programs, however, this one is entirely virtual.

“The US is rapidly losing its dominance in the technology sector. We have a responsibility to do everything we can to turn this trend around,” said UCLA Engineering Dean Vijay K. Dhir. “Most students who lose interest in math and science do so in junior high and high school because they feel they can’t understand the subject matter or do the homework. Our online tutoring program is a very effective way to ensure that interested students are receiving the encouragement and help they need to maintain their interest in math and science.”

About 20 UCLA Engineering undergraduates volunteered to spend their time tutoring high school students in courses that are traditionally seen as precursors to a successful engineering education: precalculus, algebra, trigonometry, physics, and computer science. Tutors attend an initial orientation session at UCLA, and are then matched with a school based on their interests and the courses being offered. The curriculum and homework assignments for the class they are tutoring are provided in advance so they can prepare.

The volunteers each set aside at least two hours per day, three times a week, to be available via email to answer questions and coach the high school students. The high school teacher and UCLA Engineering’s education coordinator monitor the exchanges, which can also provide instructors with valuable insight into any problem areas for their class.

In partnership with UCLA Engineering, many of the high schools also have set up password protected online forums where students can post questions and have a dialogue with their classmates as well as the tutors – a kind of online study group.

“The response has been very good,” Mayfield High School instructor Jack Blumenthal said. Blumenthal’s precalculus class received tutoring for the first time last quarter, and plans to participate this quarter as well. “The kids have access to tutoring via an active forum, and as an added benefit they are also starting a dialogue with the UCLA Engineering students, which helps them to see what they themselves can achieve.”

As far as the “virtual” aspect of the tutoring program is concerned, Blumenthal admitted, “It’s not one of the tools that older people would go to, but for kids, they love it and it’s a great way for them to connect with the subject.”

UCLA Engineering already is winning allies with their approach – five area high schools have signed on to the effort: Mayfield Senior High School, Marlborough High School, and LAUSD Schools Belmont Learning Center, Southeast High School in South Gate, and Jordan High School. More schools are expected to be added.

Volunteer Nicky Virdone, who attended high school at Mayfield and is now in her second year at UCLA Engineering, said she became involved in the program because she “felt it was a really good way to give back. I love bioengineering, and I want other students, particularly women, to realize that this can be a very rewarding career choice for them as well. It was very important to me to not just give students the answer, but to just show them how to figure it out for themselves.”

High school student Jeania Ree Moore at Mayfield, who has worked with Virdone, said the experience has been very helpful. “The tutoring Nicky provided helped me to understand problems, and different ways to solve problems – unlike the book, which just shows the answer. I liked the tutoring program a lot and I know the others students in my class also liked it,” Moore added.

Sixteen-year-old Megan Palos from Mayfield agrees. “The online application was easy to use, and the tutors were quick to reply. Sometimes there isn’t time to go over all of the issues in class, and if there are difficult problems, you ask your friends, but sometimes they don’t know the answer either. Having the online tutors to ask was so helpful. The program has really given me a sense of confidence where math is concerned. When I understand the subject, I have a greater interest in it. I’m not sure yet if I want to get an engineering degree, but I’m definitely considering it. The program was of great benefit to me.”

Understanding that a strong science and engineering workforce in the U.S. means better opportunities for everyone in the field, tutor Jonathan Yip, now in his third year at UCLA Engineering studying mechanical engineering, says he wanted to get involved in the program because he wanted to help younger students. “I remember when I was a high school student and I needed help, and it was frustrating not to have anyone to ask. The students I tutor are so excited to have help, it’s a good feeling to be able to show them how to tackle difficult problems – to give them the right information so they can do it on their own.”

The pilot tutoring program, directed initially by engineering education coordinator Frank Nevarez and more recently, Jeanine Moreno, started out small with five schools, but so far, the program estimates it has the potential of reaching more than 400 students this academic year alone, which will last from now until June in accordance with area school schedules. That figure will continue to increase as the tutoring program grows, and a number of other schools already have expressed interest in joining.

Said Moreno, “It’s our hope that this program will provide opportunities for high school students across the Southland, and eventually, if it continues to be successful, that it can serve as a model program for universities and colleges across the nation.”

For more information, or to become involved in the program, please contact Jeanine Moreno at 310.825.3008, or via email at .