By Katharine Webster
For one first-year student, a six-week summer engineering camp is a chance to adjust to living on her own.
For another, it’s an opportunity to earn six credits, paid for by a scholarship.
For a third, who’s undeclared, it’s a good way to learn about the different majors within the Francis College of Engineering.
For all of them, it’s an opportunity to build a network of friends among other young women pursuing engineering, sometimes after being the only girl on the high school robotics team or in an AP science or math class.
“There aren’t a lot of women in this field – and there are so many of us!” exults Natalie Battle, a chemical engineering major from Lunenberg.
“And we’re all in one room!” adds Nyna Pendkar, a computer engineering major from Franklin.
That sense of connection and mutual support across majors may be the single most important benefit of RAMP camp, which is designed to attract more women students to engineering and then to help them succeed. The camp, piloting for the first time this summer, is led by Assoc. Dean Kavitha Chandra, who in 1992 became the first woman to graduate from the university with a doctorate in electrical engineering.
“As a professor, I’ve been observing a decline in women entering engineering over the past two decades, except in biomedical engineering,” Chandra says. “In every other department – civil and environmental, mechanical, plastics, electrical and computer engineering – it’s tracking around 10 or 12 percent women. That’s typical of other universities, too.”
Chandra says that when fewer women enter engineering and stay the course, more other young women feel isolated and then switch to other majors. She hopes to reverse that cycle with RAMP – Research, Academics and Mentoring Pathways – which she designed with help from other faculty, based on their experiences mentoring women students in their own labs.
“We understand what’s required to take young women and keep them in the field,” Chandra says.
The college advertised the camp to all incoming women engineering students and, if they expressed interest, asked them to fill out a more detailed application and commit to completing the program. Twenty women are participating, all with scholarships provided by industry partners who support UMass Lowell’s efforts to increase the number of women in engineering.
For women who go into engineering, the rewards are considerable. On average, women in STEM careers outearn both men and women in non-STEM jobs by 35 percent to 40 percent, and the gender pay gap is lower in STEM fields than in other sectors of the job market, according to U.S. Department of Commerce data.
Research shows that the main factors that lead women students to drop out of engineering are doubts about their math and science capabilities, a lack of early computing experience and a curriculum that overemphasizes machines and rote learning, instead of the problems that machines and methods can solve. The RAMP curriculum targets those missing connections while building the students’ confidence, Chandra says.
The young women are taking Calculus I and Introduction to Engineering, both required classes. But unlike the standard Intro to Engineering within each department, this class is guest-taught each week by a professor from a different department, and each week the students complete a hands-on project that solves a problem in that field.
They’re also beefing up their computer skills with help from Nick Misiunas, a postdoctoral fellow who taught at Lawrence High School while earning his Ph.D. in Chandra's lab, the Center for Advanced Computation and Telecommunications.
In workshops on communication, the young women are encouraged to ask questions and to approach their professors. They’re discussing their goals and aspirations with Sociology lecturer Susan Thomson-Tripathy. They’re meeting engineering professors who could become mentors and hearing from women in industry about their career paths. They’re visiting companies so they can start thinking about co-op and job opportunities.
They’re also getting a jump start on college life.
Pendkar says she leapt at the chance to come to the camp, which has already increased her confidence. While many of the students are commuting, Pendkar decided to live on campus.
“I wanted to get a head start, not just academically, but on the transition from high school to college – the social aspect and the living aspect,” she says. “This is the first time I’m living on my own. At first, it was really scary, but now I’m really good friends with these lovely people.”
Battle, who’s already planning to complete the bachelor’s-to-master’s program in five years, says she had mixed feelings about attending RAMP because she had a job lined up to earn money this summer. Now she’s glad she chose the camp.
“It’s great that we’re meeting all these professors and people from industry,” she says.
Katherine Vail, a mechanical engineering major from Canton, says she thinks she’s as well-prepared for the academic rigors of engineering as any other first-year student, but she’s happy to get ahead on required courses while learning her way around campus, meeting professors and making friends with her fellow students.
“Everyone is so interesting, and everyone has different goals,” she says.
The group, which is quite diverse, includes students from as close to home as Lowell and as far away as China.
Chandra says that underrepresented minorities – including African-American, Latino and Southeast Asian-American students – often face additional barriers to careers in engineering, including greater financial responsibilities and family and cultural pressures to choose a field of study that guarantees success.
They may also come from high schools that fail to prepare them adequately in math and science, based on stereotypes that they’re intellectually inferior or unlikely to pursue STEM careers. Fortunately, the research also shows that young women of color push back against low expectations, she says.
That’s certainly true of this crew.
Battle, Pendkar and two other new friends, Isabella Manago of North Andover and Annie Kelley of Lowell, traded stories about high school teachers who had supported them – and doubted them.
“My computer science teacher told me, ‘Why are you in this class?’ That just made me more determined,” Battle says. “I thought, ‘I’ll show you!’”
And here she is.