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Mission Possible: WPI Widens the Pipeline

The pipeline that leads students to careers in engineering and science begins in elementary school. When it works properly, it carries young minds through middle- and high school, college and graduate school, and delivers them into professional and academic worlds. More than 40 WPI programs target nearly every critical point along the way to make sure that promising students aren't diverted from the path.

WPI's initiatives are supported by corporations and foundations that share the university's commitment to bridging the gender diversity gap in science and technology careers. One such industry partner is Intel, which provides funds for Strive Jr. and Strive, summer programs that reach out to minority students in middle- and high school. Intel also supports GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Mathematics and Science) and GEMS Jr., for girls in the same age groups. Likewise, General Electric has committed major corporate dollars through its GE Fund to WPI's Mathematics in Industry Institute for teachers.

"Partnerships among universities, schools and businesses are essential to moving the needle on diversity in these fields," says George Oliver '82, vice president and general manager of GE Betz Inc. and GE's university executive for WPI. "WPI has demonstrated a track record, innovative thinking and initiative in addressing the needs of female and minority high school students in math, technology and the sciences."

Extending Girls' Reach

Editor's Note: As this story was being written, the WPI community was shaken by the sudden and tragic death of Denise Nicoletti, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and founder of Camp Reach. Larry Morrison spent some time with Denise as he was reporting this story, and we are glad to be able to share her thoughts--and the story of the program to which she dedicated countless hours.

Prominent among WPI's pipeline programs is Camp Reach (Reinventing Engineering And Creating new Horizons), founded five years ago by Chrysanthe Demetry '88, associate professor of mechanical engineering, and the late Denise Nicoletti, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

In the summer break between sixth and seventh grades, this two-week residential program offers 30 girls the opportunity to explore engineering issues that have an impact on society. Among many projects, campers have designed a playground in collaboration with a neighborhood crime prevention group, created a Web site for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Worcester, and designed a Wellness Room for AIDS Project Worcester.

The staff includes WPI faculty members, local middle school math and science teachers, WPI students who serve as residential assistants, and high school students who help out as teaching assistants.

"Too often, high school teachers reinforce the expectation that girls will have less interest in engineering or science than boys," noted Nicoletti, who directed the program until her death in a car accident this past summer. "It's a bogus stereotype, of course, but it can be hard to buck. So with the encouragement of the university, several of us decided to open this career opportunity to younger girls."

The program bolsters the girls' self-confidence and helps them appreciate the real purpose of engineering (solving important problems that make the world better for real people). In addition, Nicoletti said, it shows the girls that engineers are not nerds, as some may think.

New Frontiers for High School Students

Now in its 20th year, the Frontiers program gives talented high school juniors and seniors a taste of college life and at the same time nurtures their interest in quantitative careers. (Strive is a similar summer residential program for African-American, Latino and Native American students.)

In 2002, Frontiers drew 117 students--double the 2001 enrollment--including 30 women, from as far away as California, Oregon and Hawaii; a few came from overseas, including students from Australia and Spain. During their two weeks at WPI, they pursued a "major" (biology, chemistry, computer science, electrical and computer engineering, environmental engineering, mathematics, mechanical engineering, physics or robotics) and completed project work focusing on real-world science and engineering issues, such as Web security and gene splicing. By taking workplace field trips, (some sponsored by Worcester-area alumni), they had the chance to see their majors in action.

Through programs like Camp Reach (top), Frontiers (bottom) and the Mathematics in Industry Institute, WPI promotes cooperation between universities and public schools, reaches out to women and minority students, and supports high school teachers.

"We promote Frontiers at 1,700 high schools across the country whose SAT scores and percentage of college-bound graduates indicate a strong foundation for the demands of our curriculum," says Julie Darling, assistant director of admissions, who also directs Frontiers. The program is conducted jointly by WPI's Admissions, Student Affairs, Residential Life and Student Activities offices. She notes that the program fee is deducted from the first-year tuition for Frontiers students who enroll at WPI.

Darling says that the teens' days are long and full. "It's not accidental that we send the students a list of things to bring that starts with 'alarm clock.'"

Making Math Matter

Supported by the GE Fund and a grant from the National Science Foundation, the Mathematics in Industry Institute (MII) for teachers at WPI is co-directed by Bogdan Vernescu, professor of mathematical sciences, and Arthur Heinricher, associate professor of mathematical sciences. The program this year brought 45 high school teachers from across the country to campus, immersing them in actual industry-based problems, and giving them real-world mathematical projects they can employ in their classrooms.

An essential component of MII is field trips to workplaces where mathematics is indispensable. This summer, Thomas Danias, who's been teaching algebra, geometry and trigonometry at East High School in Erie, Penn., for 20 years, worked on a project for an insurance company, wherein he calculated the cost of a simple life insurance policy to cover the children in a family.

"I can use a project like this in my classroom," he says. "I can individualize the project to match each student's experience, and then help them figure out the underlying mathematics." He'll do this in a school where 42 percent of the 1,000 students are females and 32 percent are African-American.

"I will incorporate into my regular lessons techniques I picked up from my colleagues, as well as the actual projects I worked on," says MII participant Robert Tierney, who teaches algebra and pre-calculus at Stafford High School in northern Connecticut. "And, of course, I'm going to sit down with all the other teachers in my school." One of MII's goals is to have each participant train four other teachers in their schools, helping the program reach more than 1,000 teachers over the course of three years. --LM

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Last modified: May 20, 2005, 16:39 EDT
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