Engineering the Next Generation

This article originally appeared in the 2018 Engineering @ Northeastern magazine.


To support future innovation, the College of Engineering has developed a number of outreach efforts aimed at introducing diverse young people and college students to careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), and fostering their development throughout the college experience.

Ask Claire Duggan what she loves about her job as director of Northeastern’s Center for STEM Education within the College of Engineering and the answer is clear: It’s all about securing the future. Duggan is passionate about the Center’s mission to reach out to young scientists and engineers. “The field of engineering continues to be challenged to educate an adequate number of engineers,” says Duggan. “Young people aren’t pursuing engineering at a rate that will meet our long-tern needs for science and engineering skills in the U.S. And women and minorities continue to be underrepresented.” See related article, “Breaking the Stereotype.”

Given the challenges involved in creating a strong pipeline of future engineers, Nadine Aubry, dean of the College of Engineering, has made STEM outreach a strategic priority.

“As a leading engineering school, our college has a responsibility to proactively create awareness of STEM topics and share our enthusiasm for the profession,” Aubry points out. “We need to engage students early and throughout the college experience, as well as create opportunities for the next generation of engineers of all ages, and from every background. That’s the only way we can ensure that engineering will remain vital, and that engineers will continue to arrive at truly innovative solutions to our most pressing problems as a society.”

Bridging the Gap: The Center for STEM Education

Northeastern’s Center for STEM Education is critical to this mission. The Center brings aspiring scientists and engineers in grades K-12 together with students, faculty, and researchers in the College of Engineering who can provide them with exposure to STEM topics—along with hands-on learning opportunities that bring those topics to life.

“The more young people we can reach, and the more moments of discovery we can create, the greater the chances that a future STEM professional will find his or her place in the world,” says Duggan.

Each year, the Center hosts approximately 1,500 elementary and middle school students for one-day STEM field trips to the campus, while also sponsoring a variety of summer program offerings for middle and high school students. Through the Young Scholars Program, local high school students can benefit from a six-week paid research internship in the College of Engineering. The Center partners with faculty to create targeted outreach programs, as well as with local corporations like General Electric that are committed to increasing the STEM pipeline.

A key factor in the Center’s success is the active involvement of students from across the College of Engineering. In fall 2017, more than 90 engineering undergraduates volunteered at the Center, making visits to local schools and hosting young visitors to the campus. Colin Bergmann, E’21, environmental engineering, began working with younger students as a work-study employee at the Center in 2016 and has remained involved ever since.

“I decided to become an engineer because I was exposed to hands-on learning opportunities in high school. That’s how I realized I enjoyed solving problems,” recalls Bergmann. “When I began to work for the Center, I realized not everyone has those same opportunities. I love watching kids struggle with a problem, work on it, then solve it. For many of them, it’s a new and exciting experience. They’re using their critical-thinking skills and pushing themselves, maybe for the first time.”

Bergmann has enjoyed his work at the Center so much that he worked with other students to create a student organization called the STEM Outreach Club, or STEMout. With over 350 undergrad volunteers in its database, the club gives members greater flexibility to volunteer. “We can bring Northeastern engineering students together with younger kids on weekends, or during one-time events like science expos,” notes Bergmann, now the club’s president. “There’s a huge demand for volunteer opportunities in STEM outreach, because I think a lot of us remember that ‘aha’ moment when we decided to be engineers—and we want to share that with others.”

Service Learning group
Susan Freeman (front row fourth from right), director andteaching professor of First Year Engineering Program

Service learning: Face to face with the future

Another avenue for STEM outreach is the first-year service learning curriculum designed by Susan Freeman, director of First Year Engineering and a faculty member in mechanical and industrial engineering. In her two sections of Cornerstone of Engineering—a required course for all first-year students—  Freeman has incorporated an outreach component that has made her classes extremely popular.

“When I first announced that I was adding a hands-on service learning component to my Cornerstone classes, about 280 students expressed interest—many more than I could accommodate,” says Freeman. “Today we have about 75 first-year students each year enrolled in the service learning option. They visit 14 local after-school programs in the neighborhoods of Roxbury and Dorchester each week, teaching robotics to middle school students.”

Why has the opportunity to mentor young scientists proven so popular? Former Cornerstone student Chris Scianna, E’19, electrical and computer engineering, believes many Northeastern students are excited about introducing students to topics in engineering that they themselves were never exposed to in high school, “I was always good at math and science, but I wasn’t sure what engineering entailed,” he states.

Scianna notes that the hands-on robotics projects led by service-learning students encompass many engineering disciplines, giving middle school students broad exposure to the field. “They’re coding software, they’re wiring boards, they’re learning structural mechanics—you can see the kids going from overwhelmed the first day to quickly becoming excited and showing off their working robots. It’s really gratifying to know you were a part of that,” he says.

Scianna enjoyed his first-year service learning experience so much that he became a teaching assistant to Susan Freeman, mentoring the mentors as they traveled out to local schools. To reach even more middle school students, in fall 2017 Scianna launched a student club called “Roxbury Robotics,” focused on extracurricular outreach activities. With about 100 student members, the club is actively coaching 150 middle school students, in addition to those who participate through Freeman’s Cornerstone service learning courses.

“We need to expose all kinds of young people to the field, to show them that they have a place and they are welcome. We need to show them the real work that engineers do—and, believe me, they just light up the first time their robot works. It’s that moment of discovery and accomplishment that I’m trying to foster in all my service learning work,” says Freeman.

2017 S-POWER cohort
2017 S-POWER cohort

Breaking new ground: Nontraditional paths to engineering

“While it’s important to increase awareness among K through 12 students, we also need to support those college students who want to pursue an engineering degree, but may have lacked the right information or opportunities when they chose a college and a major,” explains Richard Harris, assistant dean and director of the Northeastern University Program in Multicultural Engineering (NUPRIME).

Harris is a co-principal investigator, along with Marilyn Minus, Brad Lehman, and Claire Duggan, for a $5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) program called S-POWER (Student Pathways Opening World Energy Resources). S-POWER provides transfer scholarships at Northeastern for underrepresented minority students at colleges that do not offer a traditional engineering degree—including historically black colleges Clark Atlanta University and Hampton University, as well as MassBay, Middlesex, and Northern Essex Community Colleges in Massachusetts. Northeastern welcomed the first cohort of students as part of this program in fall 2017.

Latonya Beverly, E’19, industrial engineering and math, is one of those students. “When representatives from Northeastern visited Clark Atlanta University to talk about the S-POWER program, at first I was skeptical about coming to a school that was completely unfamiliar to me,” she admits. “They promised that they were creating a diverse, supportive community, and that has absolutely been true. Teachers and students alike have welcomed me. Moving to Northeastern was the best decision I ever made.”

The College of Engineering is also supporting undergraduate and graduate students in pursuing STEM fields through the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program. Seven engineering rising sophomores had the eye-opening experience of traveling to China in summer 2017 to conduct research at Shanghai Jiao Tong University as part of LSAMP’s International Research Experiences for Undergraduates program funded by a $3.5 million NSF grant, co-led by Harris and Hameed Metghalchi, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, and in collaboration with five other U.S. universities.

In addition, Northeastern will be a host site for LSAMP’s 2018-2020 Bridge to the Doctorate program, under a $1 million NSF grant led by Provost James Bean (PI), Metghalchi (co-PI), other co-PI’s across the university, and collaborators Harris and Vice Provost of the PhD Network and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Sara Wadia-Fascetti. This is the first post-baccalaureate program at Northeastern, which will include a student cohort of 12 underrepresented minority STEM graduate students from LSAMP campuses across the nation.

Mike McMahon, BS mechanical engineering student
Mike McMahon, BS mechanical engineering student

Talent pipeline: Partnering with community colleges

Another initiative to attract nontraditional college-age students is TRANSFORM, an NSF-funded collaboration between Northeastern and MassBay Community College aimed at training unemployed recent liberal arts graduates for STEM careers. “Unemployment rates for college graduates with non-technical degrees are relatively high—about 9.4 percent for liberal arts majors,” reports Ibrahim Zeid, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern and a principal investigator for the TRANSFORM grant. Via a modular, 12-month fast-track curriculum, which includes courses and internships, TRANSFORM helps these nontraditional students gain the skills they need to capitalize on the national growth in STEM jobs.

College of Engineering Distinguished Professor David Kaeli, electrical and computer engineering, is also a strong advocate of partnering with local community colleges to introduce their students to opportunities in STEM. Among his many efforts is an NSF-supported summer program called “NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates: Data-Driven Discovery,” or more simply REU-D3.This initiative brings rising sophomores from local community colleges to the Northeastern campus each summer, where they work on data-driven research problems, gaining and applying skills in machine learning, data analytics, and computational technologies.

“One goal of the REU-D3 program is to introduce students—especially women and underrepresented minorities—to undergraduate research opportunities in the field of engineering,” Kaeli states. “Data analytics and machine learning represent two of the fastest-growing and most critical aspects of engineering today, mainly because our world is generating huge volumes of data every day. The challenge of data-driven discovery is easy for students to understand and relate to. The REU-D3 program is a great starting point for an exciting career in engineering.”

Mike McMahon, E’19, has benefited from Northeastern’s collaboration with community colleges. After retiring from combat as a First Lieutenant, Ranger and Platoon Leader in the U.S. Army, and spending eight years as a project manager for the U.S. Special Operations Command, McMahon made a bold decision. He wanted to fulfill his burgeoning desire to become a professional engineer and work on technical projects, so he enrolled at MassBay Community College to study mechanical engineering. Then, after meeting representatives from Northeastern’s College of Engineering when they visited MassBay, he transferred to the university to finish his degree.

“It’s a hard decision to give up a secure job and pursue a college degree, especially when you’re an older student,” McMahon says. “I was worried about how I’d be received at Northeastern, surrounded by brilliant 20-year-olds. These students are an elite group.”

“But I’ve felt welcomed by my peers,” he continues. “The faculty take an interest in students and help them overcome their unique challenges. When the volume of students and course-load become heavy, there are a lot of other resources available on campus. And, by joining informal study groups and organizations like the ASME student chapter, I’ve felt the excitement of connecting with other students who are passionate about science and engineering, just like me. Everyone here shares the dream of being an engineer, and in the end we have more similarities than differences.”

Harris emphasizes, “Our goal is to institutionalize the philosophy of diversity and inclusion at Northeastern over the longer term. “By opening new pathways to welcome nontraditional students, we’re creating an engineering workforce of the future that is more innovative and more creative—because it brings together a diversity of cultural backgrounds, perspectives, and problem-solving approaches. That benefits our university, our field, and society as a whole.”