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Diversifying the Face of STEM

For one week each summer, 20 rising 10th graders from surrounding states are invited to the UMass Amherst campus for a potentially life-changing experience—attending the Massenberg Summer STEM Institute. As a collaboration between the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), the College of Engineering, the College of Natural Sciences, and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, this program offers low-income students and students of color the chance to explore various areas in STEM with college students and professors who are also from backgrounds that are underrepresented in STEM—while living on campus and getting the feel for college life.

It’s no secret that STEM fields have significant race and gender gaps. As of 2017, only 21% of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering were awarded to people of color, and for doctorates, the number drops to just 13%. Though it would be overly simplistic to say there is one main cause for such a gap, tackling issues of access and representation is definitely a good place to start addressing it.

We watched these students blossom

—Laura Haas

At the Massenberg Summer STEM Institute, participants meet college professors who want to work with them, engage them, and believe in them. Undergraduate and graduate volunteers also offer their time as mentors and class aides to help students work through problems, conduct research, and learn about areas of STEM they may not have known existed. In addition, there is a conference for parents and guardians, providing the support and tools they need to help their children prepare to apply for college, understand the value of a career in STEM, and give encouragement and inspiration.

Alumnus and co-creator of the program Michael Weir ’76 explains, “This is an intervention for these rising 10th graders so they [can] be on a college campus, at a leading research institution, and really begin to understand what it might be like to be involved in STEM in a formalized way.”

Using their personal experiences as a catalyst, Michael and his wife, Mirian Graddick-Weir, came up with the idea for the institute. Further inspiration came to Mirian for the suggestion of the name. With it she honors the life of her father, Samuel Massenberg, who thrived against all odds and understood the value of educational opportunity. “This was all because of my dad, who dedicated much of his career [so] that kids from underserved communities would have access to opportunities in STEM,” Mirian explains.

While serving as one of the first and few Black pilots in the U.S. military, Massenberg became a professor of aerospace studies at North Carolina A&T. He retired from the Air Force in 1969 and went on to earn his doctorate in education, which ultimately led him to work as Director of Education for Langley National Aerospace and Space Administration. In 1986, he established the Langley Aerospace Research Student Scholar program, and then went on to develop the NASA CONNECT program, both geared toward students across the country who are interested in and excel in STEM.

“He was someone who grew up in a very poor area in Detroit and was able to overcome many obstacles, and ended up breaking through to become one of the first of many,” says Mirian. “And he was passionate, especially toward the end of his career, about education with kids from underserved communities and access to STEM.”

The Weirs’ goals for the program were inspired by Massenberg’s vision and aligned perfectly with Chancellor Kumble R. “Swamy” Subbaswamy’s commitment to expanding STEM education and diversity.

“The intersection of Swamy’s vision and what UMass is trying to accomplish aligns so much with our notion that we need to expand,” says Michael. “And there was, frankly, a natural connection.… The commitment that UMass has demonstrated was exactly what we were hoping for, and in fact, perhaps it has maybe exceeded what we had initially thought was possible.”

With a $1 million gift, the Samuel E. Massenberg Sr. Foundation that was created by Michael Weir and Mirian Graddick-Weir has enabled the program to expand, hire full-time program director Kimberly Springer, and establish an endowment to ensure its future.

Laura Haas, dean of CICS, has been deeply involved in the program. She reflected on the first summer, “The pilot summer proved the value of the Weirs’ vision, as we watched these students blossom visibly, make new friends, come out of their shells, and see a whole world of new possibilities—a residential college experience, a career in STEM, self-sufficiency, and the opportunity to lead. This was a highly rewarding experience for everyone involved.”

Though the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the cancellation of the summer 2020 program, there are significant plans underway to enhance and expand the program for summer 2021. As these plans continue to unfold, the Weirs and the UMass faculty involved are excited to see the transformation of both the program and the students.

If you’re interested in donating to the program, please click the button below or email the Executive Director of Development for CICS, Ed Welch.