Programs Connect Alumni and Budding Engineers

Mike Johnston and FIRST Robotics team co-captain Shivam Desai test a robot
Mike Johnston ’97 and FIRST Robotics team co-captain Shivam Desai test the group’s robot.

By Katharine Webster

Mike Johnston ’97 first heard of FIRST Robotics, an international robotics competition for high school students, when he watched a team demonstrate its robot at a conference.

Johnston thought it was a great way for kids to learn and apply STEM skills, so he tried to start a team at Dracut High School, where his son was a student. But after some initial planning, school administrators said they didn’t have the resources to support it. “We had students signed up, and they looked at me and said, ‘Now what are we going to do?’” says Johnston, a software systems engineering manager at Analog Devices.

Johnston turned to his alma mater for help – and Dean Joseph Hartman and the engineering faculty welcomed the team into the brand-new Lawrence Lin MakerSpace.

Meanwhile, Johnston rounded up other mentors, including fellow alumni Anthony Iarrapino ’71, ’78 and David LeMasurier ’94. He also contacted other high schools and middle schools in the area to ask if they had students who were interested. They did.

“We wanted to form a regional team so that kids from any school, if they can make it to UMass Lowell, can get involved,” says Johnston. “This gives them a distinct advantage: They learn to work together to take on a tremendous challenge – and they have fun doing it.”

Sponsoring the FIRST Robotics team is just one way that the Francis College of Engineering connects alumni and faculty with students and prospective students to celebrate achievements and build a robust and diverse future. Others include summer camps for high school students, including one aimed at getting more girls into STEM; RAMP, a six-week summer program for incoming women students; the Francis Academy of Distinguished Engineers; and industry advisory boards for both the college and its individual departments.

“If we’re able to connect students at an early age to alumni, college students and faculty, and if they get to hear their personal stories about why they chose engineering and what they’ve been accomplishing, it can start a much-needed conversation on the many creative, educational and career pathways that engineering has to offer,” says Assoc. Dean Kavitha Chandra.

“We’re also committed to improving the diversity of the engineering work force by increasing the representation of women and ethnic and racial minorities in the college,” Chandra says. “Our alumni help with that by providing real examples of how a diversity of viewpoints can improve the solutions to problems and the products that engineers design.”

The Francis Academy honors alumni who have achieved distinction in their professional lives and who inspire future engineers by their example and through professional co-ops and training, aid for diversity efforts and donations of state-of-the-art equipment – or all of the above, like David Preusse '85, president of Whitten Battenfeld’s U.S. division, which makes industrial robots.

Preusse, who earned his degree in mechanical engineering, was honored by the academy in 2016. He serves on UML’s Plastics Industry Advisory Board, and his company sponsors a plastics engineering lab with state-of-the-art injection molding equipment, as well as co-ops, internships and fellowships. And he personally donated to RAMP last summer.

Assisting future engineers at UMass Lowell is both gratifying and important in creating a pipeline of talent, he says. “Since I joined the plastics board a few years back, I have learned about the challenges state universities have in several areas,” he says. “I was surprised that more women have been slow to enter into engineering, and I’m sorry this void is created back in high school when women who do exceptionally well in STEM classes and could see exceptional career advancement, just as men do, may miss the guidance to consider it.”

Grace Remillard, left, and Flore Stécie Norcéide seated at desks with laptops
First-year engineering students Grace Remillard, left, and Flore Stécie Norcéide spent six weeks on campus last summer participating in the RAMP program.
RAMP – Research, Academics and Mentoring Pathways – is Chandra’s brainchild. She piloted the course last summer to boost incoming women students’ computer skills and confidence. The idea is to reduce attrition among women students, many of whom switch out of engineering early in their college careers.

Industry partners provided scholarships for 20 students to take two classes: calculus and an introductory engineering course that explored a different discipline each week. The students were also introduced to C and MatLab, two essential programming languages.

Honors computer engineering major Flore Stécie Norcéide, a student from Haiti who transferred from a small community college, says RAMP was part of the reason she chose UMass Lowell. “Being around the school and being around mentors and faculty who could guide me really helped with the transition,” she says. She especially enjoyed the field trips to different work sites, hosted by alumni.

The one-week Future Engineers summer camps, begun in 2015, also connect high school students with alumni and faculty. Engineering for the Connected World, which focuses on the “Internet of Things,” has become so popular that it spawned a waitlist last summer, and more girls each year sign up for Engineering for Sustainability, which focuses on environmentally friendly solutions to practical challenges. About one-third of campers come from diverse racial and ethnic groups, too.

On before-and-after surveys, the number of campers who want to pursue an engineering career rises from under 60 percent to nearly 80 percent – and over a dozen camp graduates have come to UMass Lowell, says Erin Caples, senior assistant to the dean.

Meanwhile, the FIRST Robotics team, perSEVERE, is growing and thriving. In its rookie 2015-16 season, it advanced to the regional competition, and last spring it went all the way to the international championships in Detroit. The team now has its own alumni, including Johnston’s son, Connor ’21, and LeMasurier’s son, Greg ’20, who are both studying computer science here. They volunteer with the FIRST team, alongside several UML engineering students who competed in FIRST Robotics at their high schools.

“These types of things where you engage more kids, it should be contagious,” Johnston says.

In fact, the kids’ enthusiasm is so contagious that Johnston has come full circle: He’s a student once again, this time in the new engineering management program. “My involvement with the robotics team, working at the university, helped my decision to return and get my master’s degree,” he says.