A Boost for Engineering Students

New $1 million NSF grant to encourage low-income students to pursue graduate study with scholarships, research mentors and other support
Engineering students and professor in lab
Engineering undergraduates starting their junior year this fall will be the first ones eligible for FAST-TRAC scholarships. Here, associate Professor Robert White speaks with his students Kevin Ligonde and Daniela Torres, both E16, in his test lab. Photo:
September 12, 2016

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Several years ago, when Karen Panetta tried to sell undergraduate engineering students on the advantages of staying to get a master’s degree, she often heard a discouraging response.

“The students were telling us they couldn’t afford to stay another two years, unless they had family who could support them,” says Panetta, associate dean for graduate education at Tufts School of Engineering. It seemed like a missed opportunity, given that an advanced degree opens up more employment opportunities at generally higher salaries and many companies are eager to diversify their workforce.

“High-tech companies—particularly those that are specialized—want someone who can hit the ground running,” Panetta says. “If they can get a graduate student who already has skills and research experience—that is a win for them.”

One solution was the School of Engineering’s combined Bachelor of Science-Master of Science (B.S.-M.S.) program, which allows Tufts students to earn the two degrees in five years, instead of six—saving a year of tuition. Growing awareness of the combined-degree program has resulted in a significant uptick in enrollment over the past three years, from a handful to the current 46, Panetta says.

Now the school has introduced a new program to entice more low-income students to consider graduate study. FAST-TRAC will provide financial, academic and social support to economically disadvantaged students who embark on the five-year track.

Thanks to a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Tufts can fund FAST-TRAC through at least 2020. In addition to scholarships, FAST-TRAC students will have access to research mentors, skill-building workshops and other support as they make the transition from undergraduate to graduate study.

“This is a huge opportunity for the School of Engineering to develop a model” for encouraging more low-income students to consider continuing their education, says Darryl Williams, the school’s associate dean of for undergraduate education, who formerly oversaw recruitment, retention and community engagement. “It’s a way for us to rethink some of the infrastructure we have for supporting students in our graduate programs.”

Engineering undergraduates starting their junior year this fall will be the first ones eligible for FAST-TRAC scholarships. Candidates can apply in November, and will find out whether they have been accepted by April 2017, says Panetta, who is principal investigator on the NSF grant. The FAST-TRAC students will begin their graduate program the summer before their senior year, either starting work on a research project or doing an industry internship.

The school expects to enroll 10 to 12 FAST-TRAC students the first year, although the NSF funding could eventually support as many as 20 scholarships a year, she says. The program applies to all majors within the School of Engineering.

An advantage of the program for Tufts is that the School of Engineering will be able to strengthen its strategies for attracting and retaining underrepresented and economically disadvantaged graduate students, Williams says.

While FAST-TRAC is open to low-income students of all backgrounds, Panetta and Williams anticipate it will increase the number of underrepresented minority students in the school’s graduate programs. Williams says they also hope to attract students from the REAL—Resumed Education for Adult Learners—program, which caters to older, non-traditional students.

For employers, FAST-TRAC fills a need as well, and the School of Engineering is hoping to attract industry support. The Mitre Corp., headquartered in Bedford, Massachusetts, has already signed on as a sponsor, providing both funding and internships, Panetta said.

“The landscape for entry-level engineering jobs is changing significantly,” Williams says. “The more competitive applicants are those who have master’s degrees.”

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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