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iRobot Engineers to Students: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail

Panelists Discuss the Dreaded F-Word with Science and Engineering Majors

iRobot engineer Sandy Firestone laughs during the panel discussion Photo by Ed Brennen
Sammy Firestone, an associate test engineer at iRobot, laughs during the #PermissionToFail panel discussion at University Suites.

By Ed Brennen

For Eva Moscat, it was Discrete Structures II. For Matt Wilson, it was Chemistry for Engineers. For Anne (Faber) Gambino, it was Dynamic Systems. 

At some point in their college careers, nearly every student runs into at least one course that gives them fits. No matter how many notes they take or how many times they re-read the chapter, they feel like they’ll never be able to wrap their head around the subject matter, let alone pass the course.

A group of engineers from iRobot wants students, particularly those in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), to know that it’s OK – they’ve all struggled, too.

As part of the Bedford-based robot manufacturing company’s outreach program to encourage STEM education, small teams of employees are visiting Boston-area colleges and universities on what they’ve dubbed the “#PermissionToFail” tour. Four iRobot engineers – including two young alumni, Gambino and Moscat – shared their stories with close to 75 UMass Lowell undergrads on a recent Thursday evening at University Suites.

iRobot engineers speak at the PermissionToFail panel discussion Photo by Ed Brennen
iRobot engineers, from left, Anne Gambino, Sammy Firestone, Eva Moscat and Matt Wilson talk about how they overcame academic roadblocks with STEM students at USuites.

“We’re not here to tell you to fail out of your classes, because we won’t be allowed back on campus if we do that,” said Lisa Freed, iRobot’s STEM program manager, drawing chuckles from a packed USuites conference room. “However, we want to be honest. You probably did well in high school and then, lo and behold, you’re taking these classes in college and suddenly you’re getting a C-minus, or a D, or maybe below that. And you’re thinking, ‘What just happened? That can’t be.’ Well, it happened to every one of us.”

Besides talking about their own academic struggles, the panelists advised students on how, when and where to ask for help and offered tips on dealing with stress.

“If you’re shy like I am, use your resources,” said Moscat, who earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the Kennedy College of Sciences in 2011 and her master’s in computer science in 2014. “Talk to your professor or TA and ask how you can bring your grade up. Go for tutoring. Seek help. Don’t drown in this feeling that you’re not smart enough.”

Moscat, who joined iRobot in January as a software engineer after working for almost two years as a firmware engineer at Fitbit, told students she lived through the pressures of maintaining a certain GPA to stay on scholarship. 

Students listen to iRobot's Lisa Freed speak Photo by Ed Brennen
Lisa Freed, iRobot’s STEM program manager, shares with students how she dealt with stress while in college.

“I know I put pressure on myself, but I stuck with it,” Moscat said. “It gets better.”

Gambino was a highly successful mechanical engineering student in the Francis College of Engineering. She won the “First to Market” category at the 2017 DifferenceMaker $50K Idea Challenge with her project, Breezy (about which she was invited to speak at last fall’s Convocation). She landed an eight-month co-op job at iRobot her junior year and was hired full-time as an associate mechanical engineer after graduating last May.

But Gambino revealed to students that it wasn’t really that easy. In fact, she wouldn’t have graduated on time had she not re-taken Dynamic Systems in the spring semester of her senior year.

“It’s important for students to know that they don’t always have to be perfect. Everybody needs to hear that,” Gambino said after the discussion, when the panelists stuck around to answer one-on-one questions from students.

One of those students was senior mechanical engineering major Qiana Curcuru, president of the Society of Women Engineers.

A student talks to an iRobot engineer after the event Photo by Ed Brennen
Senior mechanical engineering major Qiana Curcuru, left, chats with alum Anne Gambino after the panel discussion.

“Being an engineer, you think that you have to get straight A’s or have these really high expectations,” said Curcuru, who worked as a co-op at iRobot for six months in 2016. “Sometimes you don’t realize that you’re not alone. It feels good to hear that reassurance from people who have been through it and have been successful.”

Prior to visiting UMass Lowell, the #PermissionToFail tour made recent stops at Tufts University and Merrimack College. Greg Denon, assistant dean of student affairs for career development, said Career Services held the event at USuites to attract students living in STEM-related Living-Learning Communities, such as Developing Leaders in Engineering, Innovation in Computer Science and Women in Science and Engineering.   

Freshman mechanical engineering major Nick Mandella said he was glad to hear that even engineers at iRobot suffer from his biggest bugaboo: procrastination. 

“I’m trying to get through that now, so it was good to hear how others work through it,” Mandella said. “It was truly helpful. Even if you have a hard time with something, you can work through it and it’s not going to stop you from getting a job, even with a prestigious company like iRobot.”