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UMass conference seeks to increase female high school student interest in engineering

On Oct. 29, female high school students explored their potential interests in the University of Massachusetts engineering program, along with the field and future of engineering itself, during UMass’ annual Women in Engineering Career Day Conference. 

Approximately 50 high schools across Massachusetts sent students and faculty to the conference, where the participants sat around circular tables equipped with rubber bands, duct tape and Popsicle sticks which were used by the students during a “hands-on” workshop featuring two activities proctored by headliner of PBS TV program’s “Design Squad” Thea Sahr.

The students were challenged to use the materials in front of them to build a machine that would stick a ping-pong ball into a cup lying on its side 12 inches away. Sahr’s slide suggested the students design either a pendulum and/or a rubber band system to propel the ball into the cup.

“Engineering consists of building things, modifying things and solving problems,” Sahr said. “Most of the time when people are asked what engineers do, people say ‘something boring’ or ‘I don’t know.’ Engineers change the world by thinking up creative and practical solutions to problems.”

The event also featured environmental engineer and UMass master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering recipient Gemma Baro-Montes, who spoke to the students about opportunities to “use engineering to create a planet that would be in less despair.”

Baro-Montes frequently referenced how UMass’ Registered Student Organization known as Engineers Without Borders has allowed UMass students pursuing engineering careers to travel to and create projects that aid nations such as Mali, Mauritania, Nepal, Rwanda and many others in need of various services such as electrical power or fresh water sources.

“When engineering students come back from other countries the impact on them is tremendous,” said Baro-Montes. “It truly changed their life.”

According to the Engineers Without Borders website, which can be found at Ewb-usa.org, Engineers Without Borders “is a non-profit humanitarian organization established to partner with developing communities worldwide in order to improve their quality of life..”

Baro-Montes went on to explain how some young students in impoverished nations were given access to computers.

Displaying a picture of smiling kids from Nepal who had just received computers, Baro-Montes said, “Look at these kids. They have just seen the world [on computers]. They will never be the same again. These smiles are what [are] most important to me. Not having a big house or money.”

Before showing several examples of how students could help out in the Engineers Without Borders chapter at the University, she said, “we are not only privileged to be living in the developed world, but also, we are responsible for taking care of those who are not as privileged.”

“The speaker was really good,” said Jaimie Lamacchia of Pathfinder Regional High School. “I like working with my hands, so engineering might be something I want to pursue.”

The event also displayed tables from various industry sponsors. The engineering department of Verizon was represented at the conference.

“A lot of companies support ways to motivate students to study math and science and show how they can further their education,” said manager of Boston and Braintree’s network engineering at Verizon Chris Parker. “The company subsidized three master’s degrees for me.”

Parker explained that their goal at the conference was to show students what their backgrounds were and what they have accomplished in engineering working for Verizon. They also wanted to talk to students about various opportunities as engineers within the company.

“It’s not just civil or mechanical engineering. There are a lot of different types of engineering students can study,” said Parker. “Students don’t have to study and work within the field they go into originally.”

Many of the students expressed an interest in becoming engineers during the conference.

“I thought this [conference] was very inspiring and helpful for what I want to do in the future,” said junior Rachel Schluckebier from Minnechaug Regional High School. “I want to be an engineer because a lot of members of my family are engineers. This definitely inspired me to realize there is a lot I can do as an engineer.”

When asked about what she thought about UMass’ program Chicopee Comprehensive High School student Jessica Dzwonkoski said, “Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) is my number one choice, but UMass is definitely an option. The only difference is that the mechanical engineering program at UMass and Western New England College are theory-based programs. WPI is a project-based mechanical engineering program.”

Alyssa Creamer can be reached at acreamer@student.umass.edu. engineering

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