Program that aims to build diversity in sciences produces first graduates

UWM has reached another milestone in helping build a more diverse workforce in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

In May, the first three students graduated from a UWM program designed to encourage more students from underrepresented groups to become engineers and computer scientists.

The three – Bryn Glennon, Mara Charpentier and Maddie Schillinger – are part of a cohort of 13 students in the PECS (Preparing Engineering and Computer Scientists) program, funded through the National Science Foundation.

The program, which started at UWM in 2017, provides scholarships, mentoring, and research and internship opportunities for students from underrepresented groups who are academically talented but face financial challenges.

It also gives students an opportunity to build a community of scholars as they work together to complete their degrees in a challenging field, said Wilkistar Otieno, associate professor of engineering and chair of industrial and manufacturing engineering who is principal investigator on the project.

Support group and mentor ‘right off the bat’

This effort, along with the WiscAMP program for minority scholars in STEM fields, supports UWM’s Moon Shot for Equity and 2030 Vision to encourage more students from underrepresented groups to major in STEM fields, Otieno added.

“Right off the bat when you enter in freshman year, you have a support group and a mentor,” said Schillinger, who earned her degree in biomedical engineering. “You also have the opportunity to meet other students in your classes. It’s a tough major, so meeting other students and being able to work together definitely helped.”

The National Science Foundation established the Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program as part of an effort to develop a globally competitive workforce. The program offers support in a number of science fields, but UWM is focusing on engineering and computer science.

Internships and research

All three students graduated within four years, and also completed internships or research projects, according to Christine Beimborn, EnQuest coordinator and STEM outreach specialist in engineering.

“I really enjoyed doing research with Dr. (Habib) Tabatabai, said Glennon, who is track for the accelerated BS/MS program.

Charpentier, who earned her degree in civil engineering, was an intern at ZS Architectural Engineering firm. That internship fueled her interest in architecture and led her to plan to pursue her master’s degree in architecture.

In addition to the scholarships and mentoring, the program requires that the PECS scholars attend at least two professional development workshops and participate in at least two community engagement activities each semester, according to Beimborn.

Lots of experiences

As part of their experience at UWM, these students traveled to the Society of Women Engineers Conference in the Twin Cities and Emerging Researchers National Conference in Washington D.C., Otieno added.  They also participated in the UWM research symposium and CEAS Student Research Poster Competition, professional workshops such as the art of storytelling and emotional intelligence, and the Society of Women Engineer’s WOW Engineering Day for Girl Scouts.  (COVID-19 interrupted some of these activities this past year.)

“It’s all been interesting,” said Schillinger, “but going to Washington, D.C., for the first time was awesome.”

Although the program is open to all underrepresented students, this first group of PECS scholars is 67% female, Otieno said. That wasn’t intentional, but it reflects a need within the field of engineering. While the share of women earning science and engineering degrees has increased over the years, the percentage of women in engineering and computer sciences is lower than in other STEM fields.

The students have built a culture and community of learners within engineering, Otieno said. For example, Glennon and Charpentier joined with Nancy De Jesus, a first-generation student in the WiscAMP program, as teammates for their senior design project.

“The goal of these programs is to help them thrive professionally and as researchers,” Otieno said.

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