Lifeline to success

Cadets find focus at the Academic Success Center

(This article appears in the September 2019 edition of Checkpoints magazine)

There’s no way around it. The academic challenges cadets face at the Air Force Academy are brutal.

Some cadets jump into the fray better prepared than others, but if a student begins to struggle, there may be little time for a course correction before a snowball effect of frustration and failure sets in.

Fortunately, Academy faculty and staff are committed to helping cadets not only face and conquer academic challenges but also build upon existing strengths to become life-long learners and well-grounded Air Force officers. It all comes together at the Academy’s Academic Success Center.

Located in the northwest corner of the first floor of Fairchild Hall, the Academic Success Center includes five centers of excellence that provide faculty-led instruction in all academic areas. The centers include the Quantitative Reasoning Center, Communication Strategies Center, Writing Center, Strategies for Academic Success, and Graduate Studies and Scholarship.

“We’re here to give cadets the academic guidance and tools to help them thrive in one of the most demanding learning environments in the country,” says Dr. Kerry McCaig, the director of the Academic Success Center.

McCaig and her team are enthusiastic educators who share a passion for teaching and a love for the cadets they serve. The directors of the five centers of excellence not only provide personalized instruction to cadets but also teach courses at the Academy in their respective disciplines.

Supplemental instruction at the center is tailored to the needs of the cadets and can include one-on-one sessions, group settings, workshops, or targeted sessions of 50 cadets or more to tackle subjects that pose common challenges to students.

The Academic Success Center team works 10 to 12 hours a day helping cadets sharpen their learning skills to become successful students. The center is sustaining more than 10,000 cadet contacts per year.

There is no stigma attached to students who use the center’s resources. The Academic Success Center provides pathways to success for every cadet, from students on academic probation to future physicians who are preparing for the MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) to potential Rhodes Scholars who want to tighten up communications skills for upcoming scholarship interviews.

Making sense of STEM

It’s no surprise that cadets seek the most assistance with STEM-related subjects including calculus, physics, chemistry and mechanical engineering. STEM instruction falls under the Quantitative Reasoning Center.

As the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) increases at the Academy, so does the need for supplemental instruction.

“We are seeing a steady increase in our foot traffic from year to year,” says Dr. Tim Giblin, the director of the Quantitative Reasoning Center. “On average, about a 15% increase per year. So the demands on our program are becoming greater and greater. At the growth rate that we are experiencing, ultimately we will reach a point where we can’t sustain it.”

Giblin, who has a doctorate in astrophysics, understands the difficulties students face.

“Cadets are the products of the environment they grew up in,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time the situation they’re in is not their fault. And there are interdependencies there. Students who are struggling in calculus are going to struggle in physics, because you need calculus to understand physics.”

But Giblin is quick to temper his compassion with a few cold facts that cadets need to grasp quickly.

“We’re the last hope, in a sense, to get these students to the point where they can learn on their own, where they can learn to learn STEM.”

Let’s communicate

Learning in a digital world has created a new set of academic challenges for cadets.

“As digital natives, students today perform most of their reading on digital devices, which often results in short attention spans and shallow reading, which impacts comprehension and retention,” says Dr. Karin Becker, director of the Communication Strategies Center.

The center offers a reading strategies course that helps cadets acclimatize to the rigors of the Academy’s textbook and information-heavy classes.

“The class provides techniques to help navigate academic texts, identify theses and key words that help readers anticipate patterns and changes in argument, and critically evaluate claims and evidence,” Becker says. “Students are exposed to texts from across the disciplines so they can see discipline-specific values in writing and organizing.”

The course includes computer software and eye-tracking goggles that track a cadet’s eye performance when reading for comprehension and retention.

Feedback on the course from students and faculty has been positive. As one incoming cadet explained, “This class gave me the skills and confidence needed to succeed in my core classes.”

The Communication Strategies Center also provides assistance for international students and cadets whose first language may not be English through its English as a Second Language program. The Class of 2022 includes 68 cadets who identify English as a second language. Individual instruction is tailored to the needs of the cadet, working closely with Academy faculty to provide the greatest benefit for the student.  

No cadet left behind

A commitment by the Academy to help cadets succeed begins with an evaluation of incoming students. Based on ACT and SAT scores, USAFA placement scores in STEM-related subjects and other criteria, students are identified who may need help with developing foundational learning strategies.

Cadets who are considered underprepared are enrolled in the Learning Strategies 101 course offered through the Strategies for Academic Success Program. Learning strategies also align with subject matter being covered in classes cadets are taking at the Academy.

“This is a 40-lesson, full-semester class that pairs specific learning strategies to course material,” says program director Spencer Thomas. “This class helps the cadets learn effective and efficient strategies for learning technical and non-technical subject matter. These research-based strategies enhance the cadets’ abilities to be successful in future classes and give them skills that they might not have learned in high school.”

In-depth research and continual honing of the program has yielded impressive results, with the retention rate of underprepared students increasing 20% over the past four years.

Top scholars

About 10% of graduating cadets receive approval to go directly to graduate school from the Air Force Educational Requirements Board. Lt. Col. (Ret.) Dr. Helen Meisenhelder ’90, the director of Graduate Studies and Scholarship, works with these cadets to explore a variety of graduate programs and scholarships.

“We assist students on the health professions side, science and engineering, and of course students competing for scholarships,” Meisenhelder says.

Graduate school opportunities run the gamut, from the Air Force-funded Graduate School Program to Rhodes Scholarships to 10 endowed scholarships funded through private sources.

Two cadets from the Class of 2019, Madison Tung and James Brahm, received coveted Rhodes Scholarships.

The Academy’s 2015 Rhodes Scholar, 1st Lt. Rebecca Esselstein, was also a familiar face at the Academic Success Center, where she received assistance from Meisenhelder with scholarship preparation and Giblin’s team with calculus 3.

Write it right

The Writing Center helps cadets on all levels strengthen their writing skills across all academic disciplines. Students can come to the center and focus on a specific writing assignment or tackle more foundational issues such as learning how to compile and organize information and create clear and compelling written communications.

“We end up being the cadet whisperers who help decode the subjects and the topics for the cadets in their sections,” says Dr. Gary Mills ’90, the Writing Center director.

Mills enjoys helping cadets strengthen their writing skills, with his greatest concern being for cadets who are truly struggling.

“These cadets need guidance,” he says. “They are missing strategies and tools that are in essence putting them a step behind everyone else, and that creates a snowball effect. Unless we are able to help them, they fall through the cracks.”

As more cadets take advantage of the Writing Center, the need for additional staff and resources increases. 

“We are working in areas that are growth areas,” Mills says. “We are being pushed and stressed to expand, but unless cloning technology really plays out, we can’t meet anticipated demands.”

Good news travels fast

The Academic Success Center has become a busy learning hub for cadets across the Academy. But success has its downside. As more cadets visit the center, the need for additional staff and equipment increases.

Private funding has become more important than ever to help the Academic Success Center keep pace with the growing need for services.

An Academy graduate recently worked through the USAFA Endowment to make a significant gift to the Communication Strategies Center to create a new oral communication program. The gift provided video and audio equipment and staff support for a Communication Center where cadets can develop oral communication skills.

“There is no longer a speech or oral communication course offered at USAFA, yet most major classes assign some form of individual or group presentation,” Becker says. “Without the curricular development, there is a great need to improve oral communication and delivery skills. Additionally, our cadets who are applying to graduate schools benefit from mock interviews and interpersonal skills development.”

Similar needs exist throughout the Academic Success Center.

“I’m not going to be a placard holder on a street corner, but our people are being pushed to the max to address the needs of the new generation of cadets coming up,” McCaig says. “We’re really stretched thin, and I worry that it’s not going to be sustainable. But we’re in a really neat place, and we’re going to stay our vector so we can continue to support each other for the sake of the cadets, the Academy and the Air Force.”


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