Engineering students shake up engineering stereotypes at area high schools

 Three students from the School of Engineering are engaging their peers and reaching out to area high schools to shake up stereotypes of engineering. Supported by the Shahbazi Public Service Fund, Richa Batra, Jeffrey Arena, and Esha John, all E12, are energizing young students and changing views about the field.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about engineering,” said John, an electrical engineering major who serves as outreach coordinator for the Engineering Student Council. “It’s not all about math and science – you need to be able to write well and work in teams.”

Their efforts kicked off this fall after Batra started reaching out to other engineers to garner interest in the program.

“About two years ago, I was involved with a group that did similar work in area high schools,” explained Batra, a mechanical engineering major and the outreach coordinator for the Society of Women Engineers. “I wanted to revive those efforts and I knew that other engineering student groups were looking for similar projects, so it was a great opportunity to partner and work together.”

Arena, a mechanical engineering major and president of Tau Beta Pi, the engineering honor society, added that the program has been a great opportunity for Tufts students.

“At Tufts, it’s not hard to find community service opportunities, but it can be challenging to find opportunities which are academically relevant to your course work,” Arena said. “This project allows engineers from all disciplines to take what they’ve learned and to help young people discover this field. It has also introduced Tufts students to our neighboring communities and helped us learn about educational disparities the range of experiences students have in high school.”

John added that the group is particularly interested in sparking interest among women and minorities, groups nationally underrepresented in engineering.

“Part of what’s really unique about this group is that a majority of the Tufts students involved are women,” said John, a native of India. “By going to a high school and talking to students about engineering, we’re able to start changing stereotypes and shifting perception about who can be an engineer.”

At Tufts, the School of Engineering has long been a leader in this regard.  Headed by Dean Linda Abriola, one of the few female engineering deans in the country, about 31% of the school’s undergraduates are women. Additionally, 26% of graduate students are female and 22% of tenured and tenure-track faculty are women – numbers which are much higher than at most other institutions.

To get the initiative going, the students started by tapping into existing relationships between engineering students and area high schools.

“Having a personal connection to a teacher or a counselor at a high school, has been the best way to find schools with an interest in connecting with us,” said Arena, a Reading, MA native whose former high school hosted an engineering workshop in the fall. “We’re also looking to partner with Tufts’ host communities and to identify the schools most in need of engineering education.”

The group recently hosted a workshop in Billerica and is planning additional spring workshops in Medford and Norwood – Batra’s home town.

“At our fall workshop, we had about 70 Reading High School students who were all taking some type of math or science course,” Arena explained. “Mostly juniors and seniors, we talked to them about college life as engineering students and discussed the possibilities for engineering careers after college.”

While the Tufts students said the amazing 70 student turnout made some of their plans for small group work impossible, they found the Reading workshop to be successful and valuable for students.

“Five Tufts students representing a range of engineering disciplines attended and participated in the workshop,” John said. “This allowed us to give the students a better picture of what engineering is all about and the range of ways it can be applied.”

“Some students had no idea what engineering was and they asked us really good questions,” Batra added.  “Going in, we were a little nervous the students would just be quiet and not have any questions, but it was really exciting how much energy and enthusiasm they had for the topic.”

Originally published April 2012